In-Depth: Columbia Dining's Local Approach

For the Columbia Dining team, good food isn't just about good eats. It's also about community.

Meal times are a chance for the student community to come together with friends and reconnect after a busy day. It's a workplace for the local community. Staff who were born and raised or relocated to the neighborhoods surrounding campus are members of the culinary teams. Local businesses or regional suppliers provide services and goods to the Dining operation.

"Local" and "community" aren't buzz words. They're simply how Columbia Dining operates.

Victor Mercedes, Head Pantry Worker at Ferris Booth Commons, has lived in the Bronx and Washington Heights combined for 30 years. He started working at Columbia in 1994. “Columbia is my life – it’s helped me become the person I am today. I see students and co-workers here on campus, I see them out in the neighborhood,” he said when asked about living and working in the community. “I’m committed to being here for the kids – they’re like my own – nothing would stop me from coming in to help take care of them.”

Victor and his co-worker neighbors are part of 30 percent of the Dining staff that live in neighborhoods local to Columbia's Morningside campus.

It’s not only the employees that are local; 54 percent of the food purchased by Columbia Dining comes from local farms in New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut – all within a 250-mile radius of campus. Area farms supply Dining's milk, strawberries, tomatoes, honey, and apples. Some of these same products are sold at the New York City Greenmarket on Broadway, held twice a week.

Coffee partner Brooklyn Roasting Company supplies a special blend of fair-trade and organic coffees for all residential and retail dining locations. Nearby vendor Hot Bread Kitchen is a social enterprise with a bakery and a business incubator. Through the Bakers in Training workforce development program, it provides training opportunities for low-income women in the culinary field. Columbia Dining purchases breads from HBK for the dining halls, as well as a custom soft pretzel – in the shape of a “C” no less – for Columbia Football concessions operated by Columbia Dining.

Guest chefs from Harlem-area restaurants regularly visit the residential dining halls, providing extra excitement for the students and staff alike. This year, Chefs from Lolo's Seafood Shack, Sylvia's Restaurant, and Red Rooster Harlem all stopped by campus. Dining culinary teams cooked up specialties from the restaurants, while guest chefs spent time talking and greeting students and staff. As part of this neighborhood connection, Columbia Dining now offers products from these spots in its residential or retail locations, like Sylvia's BBQ sauce and Red Rooster cornbread.

Columbia Dining is also a member of the Harlem Local Vendor Program (HLVP), designed to support Harlem food and product entrepreneurs. The HLVP is a partnership of the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, Harlem Park to Park, and Hot Bread Kitchen Incubates.

The program includes business education, product consultation, vendor fairs and more. As a result of its involvement with the program, Columbia Dining has purchased products from 7 local vendors to carry in its residential and retail locations, including the Egg Roll Queen, Uji Juices and Spanky’s vegan deserts, with additional offerings already in the works.

“Columbia Dining has directly impacted the local small food vendors that we serve by advising and connecting businesses that operate at Hot Bread Kitchen's culinary incubator with resources and market opportunities,” shared Kobla Asamoah, Program Director at HBK Incubates.

Why the focus? As individuals and as an organization, Columbia Dining is part of this neighborhood too. "When the products that the operation needs and the items that our students want are right here, why purchase from anywhere else?" says Vicki Dunn, Columbia Dining Executive Director. "It's just neighbors helping neighbors do business."