Econ 101: The Business of Eating Local
MANAGING A COLLEGE DINING HALL historically meant focusing on quantity and efficiency, not necessarily quality. Institutions feeding an assembly line of hundreds (or thousands) of newly independent students have traditionally gone the casserole route, with fresh vegetables something only found at the salad bar.
However, times are changing, in part because the students have changed. “Our students are pretty sophisticated eaters,” says Steve Sansola, Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. “They are coming to us [used to] dining on really good cuisine. Their tastes are constantly changing.”
Changing student demographics and values are forcing school administrators and service providers to rethink not only what is served in the dining halls, but where it comes from, as well.
Most institutions contract their food service duties out to one of the big, international food service companies such as Sodexo, Arrowmark or Compass Group. These companies traditionally use massive, industrial farms to supply the quantities needed to feed the hordes of students they’ re committed to feed—something that, at least in principle, would seem to make it difficult to introduce anything new, fresh, or local. However, changing student demographics and values are forcing school administrators and service providers to rethink not only what is served in the dining halls, but where it comes from, as well.
Emily Baksa, Unit Marketing Coordinator at Marist College for Sodexo, one of the world’ s largest food service companies, says over the past couple of decades, students have become more socially aware and more invested in their communities. “More than in generations past,”she says, ”they want to know where their food comes from; they want it to taste good. They like to try new flavors.”
In the Hudson Valley, students’ growing demand for more sustainable food practices is changing the way colleges approach the offerings in their dining halls. At Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, “It started about nine years ago,” says Chas Cerulli, Senior Director of Dining Services for Chartwells, a division of Compass Group, another food service mega company. “We were having a general conversation with a student group about apples, and they asked, ‘ Why are we paying for apples to be trucked to a warehouse in New York City then shipped to us? Why can’ t we get apples from our own backyard?’ It started this whole conversation about institutionalized purchasing versus regional agriculture initiatives. So we created relationships with local farmers to buy directly from them--it was the advent of something that is now obviously a larger movement.”
A number of other colleges also have begun looking for ways to take advantage of the fact that they are located in the middle of one of New York’ s major agricultural areas and to answer the most obvious question: If fresh food abounds all around them, why are they using frozen beef from Vancouver or produce trucked in from Florida or California or Mexico? After all, “Food is better when it’ s sourced locally,” Sansola says.
Questions about food predominate during freshman orientation, even more than energy conservation or recycling, according to Mary Ellen Mallia, Director of Environmental Sustainability at SUNY Albany. “It’ s something that is in the mindset of the students,” she says. “We have food-related courses and research throughout the campus. It’ s achieved sort of a critical mass with the students.”
The drive to offer locally sourced food is part of a larger initiative at SUNY Albany. “Our local food purchase initiative is part of our larger plan of sustainable dining,” Mallia continues. “Since 2008, [the school has been] increasingly investigating and preparing local food. “For us, ‘local’ is within 250 miles of the campus. But we also have, more recently, begun a project where we focus on New York-grown food. For that particular program we define local as New York State. We’ re at 29 percent [locally sourced]; about 20 percent of our food is New York-based.”
Perhaps no college, at least in the Hudson Valley, has embraced the idea of offering more local food than Marist, which has been working with Sodexo on a local-food plan for eight or nine years. “We’ re constantly leveraging Sodexo to seek alternative sources--meaning local and regional. We’ re at 54 percent [locally sourced food] this year; next year we’ re adding all our turkey and additional meat products,” Sansola says. “The only thing missing out of our cadre of [locally sourced] food items will be pork, which we hope to do next year. We project to be roughly 63 percent [locally sourced] next year.”
Marist defines “regional” as 150 miles, though this will be expanded to 200 miles. Despite the larger area, Sansola admits that Marist will never hit 100 percent local, simply because there are certain staples—tropical fruits like bananas and oranges and vegetables out of season—that are not available locally and which the school cannot do without. Eventually, Sansola projects that between 70 and 80 percent of the food offered in Marist’ s dining halls will be sourced locally.
While most people agree that offering students more food grown locally would be a good thing, it isn’ t always easy. The most obvious challenge is the added cost.“Local foods cost a little more,” Sansola notes, “so we have to be cognizant of the fact that we want to be competitive in our pricing as a college--we don’ t want to pass the increase on to our students directly, so what can we do? How can we save in [other] areas to allow us to offer better food?”
At SUNY Albany, too, the bottom line looms large. “I think you have to note the cost difference and be fiscally prudent in terms of where you invest,” says Stephen Pearse, Executive Director of University Auxiliary Services. “It’ s not like the chef can say ‘ I need 20 pork loins,’ which would be 10 animals. We actually order 15 animals per week, which get distributed amongst the kitchens on campus. That’ s everything. It’ s not just 30 pork loins, it’ s 30 sets of ribs, it’ s 30 shoulders, it’ s the shanks--it’ s all the parts of the pig. It’ s been a challenge for the chefs to determine how they are going to utilize it all. Pork loins are easy, but it’ s when they get into some of the other parts of the animal that they have to get a little creative.”
When Bard set a goal to reach 20 percent locally sourced food by 2020, the school administration increased the food services budget to give the program a boost. That additional start-up money allowed the program to exceed that goal even earlier than anticipated, reaching 22 percent locally sourced food in 2014. However, “A lot of these additions cost more money,”says Katrina Light, Bard College’ s Director of Food Sustainability. “As we’ re looking to switching over to even more local sources—a sustainable coffee company or working with local bakeries or trying to source from smaller farmers—the cost goes up. There was a big push to make our initial goals, and then it went away. I would definitely say that we have reached a bit of a plateau financially. What do we do now?”
And the very nature of institutional purchasing poses other challenges. The contractual agreement between a school and its food service provider may limit the flexibility the school has in sourcing its food. There may be quantity, quality and deliverability stipulations that can bedifficult or impossible for a local provider to meet. For example, at Marist, “We buy local milk products from Hudson Valley Fresh, but it took us almost two years to make that happen,”Sansola says. “There was a lot of back-and-forth between Marist and Sodexo about making sure [Hudson Valley Fresh’ s] production line met [Sodexo’ s] standards of liability and accountability. And Baldor [Specialty Foods] is the vendor--but Baldor is in New York City. We didn’ t want the product shipped to New York City and then back to us. Now, we have a truck come right to us, but it took a while to make that happen.”
Colleges like Marist and SUNY Albany haven’ t been able to switch to locally sourced food on their own. In the past decade, a cottage industry of distributors and vendors has sprung up to help local farms get their fresh product into the institutions that would otherwise ignore them. In addition, distributors like Baldor and producers like Hudson Valley Fresh, companies such as Red Barn Produce, Cariota Produce, Purdy and Sons and Bread Alone Bakery have stepped in to help facilitate distribution.
If there is a need or a niche, chances are there is a company working to fill it. “Red Barn meets the certification as required by Sodexo as a food provider, and they can source from all the local farms,” Sansola says. “In addition, Sodexo has other providers that fall within the 150- or 200-mile radius that have products that are locally raised. They, in turn, will contract with local farmers to raise certain products--say, pork or beef. We buy hormone/antibiotic-free chicken, for example, from Purdy and Sons.” SUNY Albany gets all of its fresh fish from Red’ s Best, a Boston company that works with more than 500 independent New England fishermen to process and distribute their fresh catch throughout the region. The fish is heavily tracked, so buyers know when it was caught, who caught it, even what boat it was on. It generally takes less than 36 hours for the fish to go from the deck of the ship to a student’ s plate in the dining commons.
Of course, working with local farms means that not everything can be available on demand. This requires institutional chefs to be more flexible in their offerings. “Basically it’ s just a matter of seeing what’ s available,” says Anthony Legname, Sodexo Executive Chef at Marist. “All our purveyors send us a weekly list of what is available7 as far as product, and then we just try to capitalize on it. If it’ s already incorporated into our menu, then we just purchase it. If not, then we purchase it and incorporate it into our menu. It’ s local, it’ s fresh, more nutritious, lowers our carbon footprint, it’ s more sustainable, and makes everybody happy. It’ s a win-win.”
In 2014, working with the American Farmland Trust, the State University of New York system took part in the Farm-to-Institution New York State Initiative by creating a program called Farm-to-SUNY that involved four campuses: Albany, New Paltz, Oneonta, and Oswego. “We had coordinated marketing across schools,” says Christina Grace, a consultant with the American Farmland Trust who worked on the project. “We provided technical assistance working directly with the distributors, introducing them to producers, putting tracking mechanisms in place to get a baseline of what’ s being purchased today locally and what we can do going forward. One of the things that was most valuable was having regular communications across the Farm-to-SUNY campuses about what they were doing, what was working, what wasn’ t.”
Nutritional benefits, better taste and benefits to the local economy aside, someone will always be watching the bottom line.
Infused with an initial grant, Farm-to-SUNY found a level of success. An analysis of the program published in January 2016 notes that beginning with the 2013-14 academic year, the campuses achieved 25 percent growth per year in the purchases of at least five local products. Unfortunately, the news was not all good. “What we had wanted to do was jumpstart a program and put some processes in place that would keep the program going,” Grace says, “but just as our grant was ending, the folks at SUNY Sustainability left—and they haven’ t filled the positions. So we have been working to figure out who at SUNY might provide the kind of support that we were hoping for.”
Despite the significant challenges, there is reason to believe the local food movement will continue to grow at institutions of higher learning. “We’ ve seen a growing awareness [regarding local food]. There’ s been more in the media about it,” Light notes. “I think what happened at Bard specifically—being in a rural environment, being surrounded by farms—helped raise the question: Why is it so hard to source local food in this region?”
With the large food service companies such as Sodexo and Compass Group willing to work with the schools’ requests for more locally sourced food options, and with more distributors stepping up and becoming certified, the amount of locally grown food available to students will increase. Yet, nutritional benefits, better taste and benefits to the local economy aside, someone will always be watching the bottom line.