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It might seem easy for a school located in a city surrounded by great farmland to source its food locally.

I'm talking, of course, about Penn, located in Philadelphia, a fairly quick drive from Lancaster County, Bucks County and New Jersey.

But try finding enough lettuce to feed thousands of salad-eaters several times a day, every day of the week, for eight and a half months of the year. Until recently, Penn Dining's best efforts to source sustainable food were hampered by the logistical difficulties of finding local food in university-sized quantities.

Since this summer, we've been in luck. The Common Market, a wholesaler of southeastern Pennsylvania-raised produce, opened down by the port in South Philly. Aramark's been in talks with their management to authorize the Common Market as one of Penn's suppliers. This is great news both for our stomachs and for Penn's carbon footprint.

But the effort doesn't end with Dining doing bureaucratic legwork to make local food happen. While - newsflash - the Pennsylvania climate permits year-round vegetable growing, Penn students must create a demand for winter produce in order to make the relationship with the Common Market feasible year-round. We have to start demonstrating now that we care about supporting local business and making our University sustainable.

Unfortunately, the school year coincides with the time of the mid-Atlantic growing season that Penn students are probably least familiar with. It wasn't until a few months ago that I tasted a rutabaga. And who eats turnips or winter chard on a regular basis or is willing to eat only apples for their fruit until April?

"We want to source other things than produce, especially in the winter months," such as meat, dairy and eggs, said Bob Pierson, a Common Market board member and director of Farm to City, a local non-profit organization. This would be another way for Penn to sustain a relationship with the Common Market through the winter months (at least until rutabagas become the next big thing).

But we've got to keep up our demand for local, low-impact food if we want Penn, Aramark and the Common Market to keep untangling the threads of this complicated process. "Any time you are procuring . from a new vendor, you have a series of questions or procedures to go through," said Laurie Cousart, Penn's director of Business Services, which is why Dining hasn't been able to source from the Common Market yet this school year. "It doesn't happen overnight."

Penn requires so much food on a daily basis that the Common Market's suppliers would actually have to plan in advance for the next growing season in order to meet our needs. However, Cousart and the rest of Penn Dining's management already work with some local suppliers.

"The way we conduct business is compatible with the standards of a place like Aramark," said James DeMarsh, the Common Market's general manager. And Cousart is optimistic that Penn will be sourcing from the Common Market by next fall. Indeed, the primary reason for founding the Common Market was so that the local food supply chain would be compatible with the standards of a corporation like Aramark.

A primary difficulty hospitals, universities and other large-scale operations were having in sourcing locally was the high volume of food they needed and the necessity of their suppliers having certain types of legal certification and insurance. This is often financially impractical for smaller farmers, but the Common Market, a larger operation, can afford these things and therefore makes it feasible for small farmers to get their harvest to Penn students or HUP patients.

So head out to the plethora of farmers' markets in West Philly, join a CSA or take SEPTA over to Reading Terminal. Let Dining know how much better local food is than the cardboard-tasting Chilean apples you find at FroGro in December. Try some weird root vegetable you've never eaten before, then ask if Dining can buy it from the Common Market next December.

In a business that's student-driven, we have to take greater charge of what we fuel our bodies with. Don't just accept that Dining won't ever have great-tasting food that's friendly to our environment and local economy. We have the power to ask here, and Dining really wants to say yes.

Meredith Aska McBride is a College junior from Wauwatosa, Wis. and member of FarmEcology. Her e-mail address is Radical Chic appears every Tuesday.

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