Universities and colleges crave a steady diet of meat, vegetables, fruit and other food for hungry students.

Take the University of Missouri at Columbia, where students consumed nearly 2 million meals in residence dining halls last year, according to a story in Mizzou , the alumni magazine.

Likewise, local farmers need strong markets year round for their meat, produce, milk and eggs. But small local farms cannot totally fill the orders needed to satisfy a campus of hungry students, day after day, through all the seasons.

That fact hasn't deterred proponents who believe in providing students with fresher, more nutritious food, and small farmers a decent living.

Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist with University of Missouri Extension, ticks off the benefits:

–Locally grown food is fresher and doesn't have to travel far, which means a longer cooler or shelf life while cutting down on fuel consumption and harmful engine emissions.

–The universities have first-hand knowledge of the farmers who grow the food.

–The students have healthier food that isn't treated with chemicals or additives.

–Valuable relationships are formed between local consumers and farmers that can rebuild a food-supply infrastructure.

Hendrickson is always searching for ways to strengthen small family farms in the face of large-scale, industrial agriculture that turns out meat, vegetables and other produce on a mass scale. Her latest effort is coaxing food service managers and supply companies, such as U.S. Food Service of Columbia, Md., which supplies Mizzou and Washington University, to search for and buy from local farmers.

Hendrickson persuaded the food service at Mizzou to feature Missouri apples – Jonathan and red and golden Delicious ­ in one dining hall in the fall of 2005. Campus dining halls highlighted Missouri apples again this fall. And last March, campus dining facilities served more than 3,000 meals featuring all Missouri products except spinach.

Those included pork loin, goat cheese, grape juice and pecan pies. The university's agriculture experiment stations also have come through with tomatoes, pumpkins and decorative gourds, Hendrickson says.

U.S. Food Service has been providing Mizzou's dining facilities with watermelons grown in St. Louis County by Thies Farm and Greenhouses Inc., says Dave Thies, whose family-owned commercial farm is a fifth-generation operation.

Thies says the biggest obstacle for colleges and universities wanting to buy locally is the short growing season, which means fresh vegetables may be hard to find during the normal September-through-May school year.

Hendrickson readily admits that many producers may not be ready for prime time.

“It's not easy. I won't lie to you,” she tells about 30 interested farmers at the Small Farm Show in Columbia. “Farmers don't return phone calls quickly. Many don't have answering machines. They're not set up to take credit cards. You have to know how to produce, and you have to know how to market.”

Or, as Marc Foley, executive chef for Bon Appetit Management Co.'s operations at Washington University, put it: “It's a learning curve on both sides.”

Bon Appetit, which is based in Palo Alto, Calif., has food-service contracts with 190 accounts in 26 states, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University. At Washington University, Foley says, Bon Appetit serves 8,000 to 12,000 meals a day at 17 locations.

A corporate mission for the national food-service company, Foley says, is to buy most of the food it serves within 150 miles.

“Our goal is to do an entire cafeteria with local foods,” he says. “But it's hard to create the relationships with farmers. It's hard to sustain. Part of it is the skepticism on the part of farmers.”

Some farmers say they have been burned by restaurateurs or chefs who promise to buy their produce or meat, only to find they have changed their minds.

But that risk hasn't deterred Jolene Benne, who supplies chickens and beef to Fresh Gatherings, a cafeteria on the St. Louis University campus that features locally grown food.

“I'm the seventh generation on this farm. That's why I'm trying to hang onto it. We like the lifestyle,” says Benne.

Fresh Gatherings was founded by Mildred Mattfeldt-Beman, head of St. Louis University's Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Eddie Neill, the owner of the new Dubliner restaurant on Washington Avenue who made his name years ago by buying and serving food raised by local farmers.

If campus demand begins to grow here, as it has elsewhere, that could send a signal to local farmers that they should begin to raise more grass-fed cattle and sheep, more free-range chickens and as much fruit and vegetables as they can take care of.

Some farmers already have caught the trend, spotted and nurtured early by Neill, whose buying encouraged farmer Dave Hillebrand to raise lambs and chickens.

With a steady market, Hillebrand has been able to convert a commodity-grain farm near New Florence, Mo., in Montgomery County into a livestock farm where he raises about 500 lambs a year – the reverse of the usual transition in agriculture these days.

“We went from being in the red to being in the black,” he says. “Now we can't keep up with the demand.”

© 2007, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.