Haley Baron ’12 was about to take another bite of her Usdan salad when she noticed something strange on the leaf—a pinky-sized brownish green caterpillar.
“I picked it up with my fingers and it was squishy and was in a little spiral,” Baron said. “It unraveled, pooped on the table, and then continued to move away.”
This was not the first time that critters have made it onto the menu at Usdan. Jeff Hill, who is the First Cook at Bon Appétit, recalled one day in early October when grasshoppers were sautéed along with the rainbow chard. The chard was removed from the line after some students told the line server about their crunchy findings.
These incidents have one thing in common: Bon Appétit had ordered the produce in which the bugs were found from Starlight Gardens, an organic farm less than seven miles from the University. Bon Appétit usually imports its produce from big suppliers located out of state. Once or twice a week, however, Bon Appétit buys locally in an effort to move towards sustainable practices. Big suppliers often use pesticides and have advanced equipment to screen produce for bugs. Certified organic farms such as Starlight Gardens, however, do not use pesticides on crops. Couple this with Starlight’s proximity to the University, and the survivability of arthropods in its produce increases significantly.
“The dangers of insects—worms, beetles, things that might eat and live off greens like that—becomes higher when you deal with true organic produce,” said Michael Strumpf, Bon Appétit Resident District Manager.
After Baron found the caterpillar, her friend notified a Bon Appétit staff member, who apologized and explained that the salad that day was from Starlight. Baron said she has received several free meals from Bon Appétit since reporting the find. Although she has not eaten salad since the incident, Baron supports Bon Appétit’s efforts towards sustainability.
“I definitely think that the food could be washed better,” she said. “I’ve heard of other people finding animals—I have a friend who found two smaller caterpillars. But I don’t think they should stop the practice of having food at Usdan that is locally grown.”
When Bon Appétit receives produce, it is washed in several stages before being cooked or served. The produce is dumped into the first compartment of a three-compartment sink that is filled with water. The produce is then agitated, causing dirt and bugs to sink to the bottom. The process is repeated in the remaining compartments.
Although the chard with the grasshoppers underwent this washing process, Hill acknowledged that the chard could have been washed more thoroughly.
“The day those greens got washed, they were washed in a manner where there were too many in the sink at one time,” Hill said. “That was probably the single reason the grasshoppers were able to make it to the cooking stage.”
Since the grasshopper incident, Hill has asked his staff to wash produce more carefully. Instead of washing two bags of greens at once, only half a bag is washed at a time. In addition, after each washing, Bon Appétit staff now use a “greens machine” to dry vegetables using centripetal force, at the same time getting rid of any lingering bugs and sediment. Hill said he has been extra cautious because he knows that some students may react more strongly than Baron or Leven did after finding a bug in their meal.
“We don’t want this happening,” he said. “Some people accept it okay, but then other people, they’d freak out and say ‘Oh my god, there’s bugs in my food. I’m never eating here again, that means the place is dirty,’ but it’s not like that at all.”
Abe Bobman ’11, who grows and harvests crops at Long Lane Farm, said that bugs in produce are actually a good sign.
“I feel much safer eating vegetables from Durham with visible larvae, knowing the source and the method of procurement, than eating some anonymous, uniform spinach from California with possible microscopic bacteria from human shit,” he said in an e-mail to The Argus.
As student pressure for Bon Appétit to buy local and organic produce increases, so will the risk of students finding a little something extra in their lunch.
“It happens,” Strumpf said. “Do we want it to happen? Absolutely not, it’s the last thing we want to see. But as we move into sustainability and people want organic and what’s good for the soil, it’s going to happen.”