“Any free food is good,” joked Oregon State University senior Robert Manwell in between sips of Organic Valley low-fat vanilla milk.
Manwell scored the milk about noon Thursday from a booth in the Memorial Union Brick Mall hosted by Organic Valley, the nation’s largest cooperative of organic farmers. Members of the organization are stopping at colleges and other markets along the West Coast as part of its 2011 Generation Organic Tour.
Riding from stop to stop in a bus running on biodiesel and vegetable oil, a group of relatively young Organic Valley farmers is promoting organic foods, local farms and ownership of food choices.
Along with passing out Organic Valley dairy products, the farmers used an iPad to collect electronic signatures for a petition to encourage the Food and Drug Administration to label genetically modified foods on the packaging, and planned a talk later in the afternoon titled “Know Your Farmer, Drive Your Future.” OSU’s Organic Grower’s Club had its own booth nearby and passed out vegetables from their student farm.
So why the stops at college campuses?
Carrie Welch, a spokeswoman for Organic Valley, explained the tour hopes to show young people that it can be easy to learn about local foods by building relationships with nearby farmers.
“We’re basically showing people that it’s not like your grandfather’s farmer anymore,” Welch said.
The organic-food business is booming. A 2011 survey by the Organic Trade Association concluded that sales of organic products grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, and organic fruits and vegetables saw an 11.8 percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2010 alone.
OSU has incorporated organic foods into its on-campus dining options: It’s buying more meats and produce from local farms and using more produce grown at OSU’s Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture.
And though the goal is to get students more informed about their food, Organic Valley farmers on the tour have noted a surge of interest among students on the tour stops — and not just because of the free cheese and milk.
“They want to know more,” said Laura Boere, 26, who works on her family’s organic dairy farm in Modesto, Calif., and joined the tour in Portland; she also joined Organic Valley’s similar tour of East Coast markets and colleges in fall 2010.
Manwell, the free food fan, said he loves eating organic food, and has incorporated it into an overall healthy lifestyle. Diabetes runs in his family, and he’s hoping that smart choices now will hold the disease at bay.
“I don’t want to even deal with that when I’m older,” Manwell said.
Likewise, OSU junior Yonatan Weiss has cut out meat, pork and dairy products from his diet to prevent diet-related diseases — he munched on an Organic Grower’s Club tomato while friend Liz Linderman sampled Organic Valley string cheese.
“I decided to change now, instead of when I’m 50,” Weiss said.