Colleges and Universities, especially the nation’s land grant universities are a perfect laboratory for policies that support locally-grown and/or organic food supplies. The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems completed a survey of schools in 1998 and identified a handful that had policies in place that supplied their food service departments with significant quantities of locally grown and/or organic food.
According to CIAS there is “no sure-fire formula for getting a local food initiative established or for sustaining the effort.” Of the six institutions identified in their survey most reported that their programs were catalyzed by the interest of a vocal, commited inividual or group of people. A campus Environmental Issues Committee comprised of students, faculty, and staff, including the campus director of dining services, conceived the Bates College initiative. At Northland College, the initiative was catalyzed by four students working on a term paper, one of whom worked in the campus food service operation part-time. At Iowa State University, international visitors interest in local food sparked a customer-service oriented Chef to examine how to keep them satisfied. CIAS notes, “If there is no sure-fire formula, there are at least one or two key ingredients to make the recipe work. Schools with ongoing initiatives, and several without initiatives, stressed that if a local food initiative is to succeed it requires a champion for the project coupled with broad support within the college and campus community.
DougJohnson, CIAS researcher, set out to identify what opportunities and barriers face producers who would like to market to colleges. Johnson looked at six U.S. colleges, each with significant local, sustainable food buying components. What he found was that while these institutions were trying to increase efficiency and meet budgetary and safety requirements, marketing opportunities do exist for producers of local, sustainably produced food even within the largest and most structured food service departments. Johnson found that, in general, institutional food buyers were more interested in buying locally produced foods which benefited their community than they were in buying certified organic foods.
For those wishing to sell local, sustainably produced food to colleges a mismatch between institutional needs and a farmer’s ability to meet them can pose barriers. The barriers include higher prices, lack of one-stop shopping, food service management structures, liability issues, increased labor requirements for food handling and pre-season commitments to purchase.
Here are highlights of a few University-based local food preference programs.
Bates College, Maine
UW’s CIAS found that Bates College, a small private college with an enrollment of approximately 1,650, began their local food initiative in 1994 and quickly expanded purchases of local food products to approximately 30-40 percent of total purchases, of which 100 percent are organic. The local food initiative at Bates evolved from the college’s waste minimization, recycling and composting efforts, and a desire to better integrate the college’s operations within a community ecology. The college’s food service was recognized as a natural source of compostable materials that could support local growing of food for local consumption. At Bates, the maturity of the project is such that local farmers consult with the Chef and Food Service Director on pre-planting decisions and the logistics of handling, storage and delivery of bulk quantities of potatoes and other crops throughout the school year. Farmers have developed infrastructure to simplify transaction costs including one-call shopping, and coordinated deliveries and invoicing.
In 2000, Bates Dining was honored with the Best of the Best ReNew America (now Renew the Earth)National Award for Sustainability and was also the special recipient of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Award for Environmental Leadership.
Middelbury College – Vermont
Frombuying local and organic to minimizing waste through composting and reusable cups, Middlebury College’s Dining administrators and staff are continuous leaders in initiating sustainable practices. Charlie Sargent, chief purchaser for Dining Services, is committed to building relationships that support local food producers. Dining Services provides upwards of 7,000 meals a day, and has a budget of nearly three million dollars. In 2003, a food vendor bid request emphasized Middlebury Dining’s commitment to purchasing locally produced products. In the bid letter announcement it specifically states
Middlebury College Dining Services strives to support the local economy by purchasing locally produced products and some items will be specified as such.
Burlington Food Service of Burlington, Vermont was awarded this bid and regularly supplies the college with food products from thirty-three Vermont food producers. Middlebury also incorporates fifteen organic products on an on-going basis into the campus cuisine. Dining Services works directly with farmers and local produce distributors to increase the amount of local produce used in the dining halls, recognizing the potential income they can offer farmers by steering more of the College’s annual produce purchases toward local growers. In the summer 2003, a partnership between Dining Services and the Middlebury College Organic Garden began. The student-initiated garden sells small quantities of freshly harvested produce throughout the summer to Dining Services.
Food for Thought – Middlebury Magazine, Fall 2003
University of Wisconsin – Madison [see also this Case Study]
InDecember of 2000, the University of Wisconsin at Madison became the first major public university in the U.S. to commit to putting foods grown on local farms on the regular menu at their dorm dining centers. In the fall of 2003, organic hamburgers replaced all conventional burgers in all University student cafeterias, which serve 15,000 meals a day. This action was taken in response to the University Housing Food Service’s desire to offer fresh, quality food and to student demands for more organic food in the cafeterias. The burgers are produced by local farmers and distributed to the University by Organic Valley, a nationwide farm cooperative. As of Fall 2003, the Food Service also plans to serve all-organic salads, but cannot, as of yet, find enough local organic farmers to fill their supply needs.
Farmer-direct buying got started at Housing Food Service in the mid-1990s. In contrast to some other colleges, where students led the push for local, organic foods, UW-Madison’s faculty and staff initiated local buying. The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) took the lead by requesting local, sustainable catering in 1996 and has continued this work with help from a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant. CIAS began to introduce local, organic foods into special events in 1994 with a Dean’s Board of Visitors Meeting and a national gathering of Extension Deans. CIAS staff worked with food service administrators and chefs to develop a menu around local, sustainably-produced foods. They also put together provocative menus of food system issues. These menus addressed topics such as energy use, food security, sustainable agriculture, and the economic development potential associated with local food systems.
Thoughthe price of organic hamburgers for UW students is the same as previous years’ conventional burgers, the price of the patties for the Food Service is nearly double that of the non-organic type. The constant price was made possible by a very small increase in the room and dorm fee paid by students. An overall price decrease of 10 percent in Food Service cafeterias was made possible by the extra funding, and hamburger prices remained the same price in order to compensate for their increased cost. The patties are purchased through Organic Valley, a major producer of organic foods, which buys its products from organic farmers in the area and redistributes them to its clients.
UWFood Services will collect and evaluate sales data and student comments in November 2003 and will decide if they should continue to offer the organic burger, return to the use of the conventional burger, or menu both.
John Hendrickson, senior outreach specialist for the CAIS, believes there are benefits of purchasing locally grown organic foods. The environmental impact of purchasing a certain type of food should be considered, more than just its health value. The pollutants created by the purchase of foods requiring long-distance transportation, including the byproducts of fossil-fuel combustion released by refrigerated trucks, make locally grown organic products a better choice for the environment, Hendrickson said. “We’re a land-grant university that’s supposed to be supporting local farmers and reducing environmental impact,” Hendrickson said.
The College Food Project – Colleges and Universities Using Their Buying Power to Support Wisconsin Farms
College Food Project: Northland College Case Study
Every day, Northland College serves its students organic food that was grown right in their county. Northland is located in Ashland, a northern Wisconsin town with a very short growing season. Because of this, their farmer-direct buying has focused on storage crops, including carrots, potatoes, and onions. The curriculum at Northland College is focused on environmental education. The student body is small (about 800 students). Many of the students, faculty and staff believe that their food choices are one way that they can make a difference as environmentalists. Many students work at local community supported agriculture farms and orchards.
- Robyn Van En Center/National CSA Resources
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center’s section on CSAs
- Sustainable Agriculture Network Directory of CSAs
- National Directory of Farmers Markets – find all the farmers’ markets in the United States
- What is Community Supported Agriculture and How Does It Work? – University of Massachusetts Extension
- Organic Consumers Association
- Community Food Security Coalition
- Local Harvest
- Community Supported Agriculture of North America
- Trends and Prospects for Sustainable Agriculture Products in Food Service Operations of Colleges and Universities – by Douglas Johnson and Steve Stevenson, UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, 1998
- Farm to College Program – Community Food Security Coalition
- Farm to College – FoodRoutes.org
- Buy Local Food and Farm Toolkit: A Guide for Student Organizers – OxFam America,
- Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions – A Resource Guide for Farm-to-School and Farm-to-Institution Programs – Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, October 2003