This is the time of year when so many of us are hard at work on that New Year’s resolution to eat healthier. For Bill Connors, that is a year-round passion.
Around campus, we know him as Chef Bill. He is a great cook who also is known for his chef’s “uniform” — he favors colorful pajama pants — and for his advocacy for both eating healthy and buying locally produced foods.
Chef Bill has been befriending our students and satisfying their incredibly diverse palates for the last 17 years in university housing’s residence hall dining. He appreciates his many opportunities to help take care of our students, and Chef Bill and other members of the residence hall dining team make sure we are providing them the highest quality food that we can feed them.
“I love to interact with the students,” he says. “Hopefully, they take something away from here, such as the fact that they should buy their food close to home. If I can get eight or 10 students every year to think about food differently, so that what they are buying is fresher and local, that’s a great thing.”
Presenting plenty of healthy options is a priority in our dining halls. But, Chef Bill also knows it can be an uphill climb.
“It’s a fast food world, and they are brought up that way. The most popular things we make are chicken strips and French fries, even though we try to have the biggest and best salad bar in Carbondale available to them.”
Chef Bill definitely practices what he preaches. He works with the College of Agricultural Sciences to utilize produce and livestock from University Farms, and with students who tend an organic garden on campus that provides produce for the dining halls. He also is a member of our Sustainability Council.
In 2010, Gov. Pat Quinn appointed Chef Bill to the 35-member Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Council, which works with state agencies, businesses, organizations and residents to expand the local farm and food market. SIU is very much a part of that movement. Our dining halls serve more than 7,000 meals each day during the school year. Chef Bill estimates that about 30 percent of the food products we use come from within Illinois or a 250-mile radius of campus, and we continue to look for opportunities to do even more.
“We spend $43 billion outside the state every year on food,” he says. “We could create a lot more jobs and economic stability by buying food that is produced locally. It gives you fresher, better-quality and much healthier food for your table.”
Chef Bill and our other chefs share tips and recipes for grilling vegetables when they appear at the summer farmers’ market in Carbondale. Chef Bill will conduct a cooking demonstration at the winter farmers’ market late this month or early March at Thomas School in Carbondale.
“I am really trying to get out there in the community so more people appreciate our local farmers,” Chef Bill says. “I want people to realize how important it is that we buy as much as we can from our local farmers, because that money stays in our community.”
RITA CHENG is chancellor of SIU Carbondale. Her column appears weekly in Southern Plus.