Dishing up local food on Wisconsin campuses (Research Brief #55)
Posted January 2001
If colleges and universities purchased five to ten percent of their food directly from local farms, imagine the extra income that could end up in Wisconsin farmers’ pockets. The University of Wisconsin-Madison alone spends nearly $10 million each year on food for its dining services.
The good news is that many colleges and universities in Wisconsin are already buying food directly from local farmers. And food service directors at many more Wisconsin schools want to buy food locally.
Janet Parker, researcher for the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), interviewed food service directors at 34 colleges and universities in Wisconsin to learn more about their potential as local food buyers. Parker also interviewed distributors and helped the UW-Madison food service organize local food events on campus. Her work follows up on a national study described in CIAS Research Brief #39.
Local food buying can not only help keep farmers in business-it can engage students in supporting local farms and thinking about where their food comes from. This project has identified opportunities and challenges for marketing local food on campus.
Linking growers with campuses
Many college food service directors want to buy food locally, but they don’t know how or where to get it. Linking growers and food service personnel is a basic, critical step in creating sustainable food systems on college and university campuses.
Building these linkages can help growers boost sales. In Wisconsin, linking farmers with campuses has helped at least 18 growers and two farmer-owned cooperatives start or expand sales. Parker found that each local meal served at UW-Madison generated $2,000 to $6,000 in local sales.
Brokers and marketing cooperatives that link colleges and farmers have been vital to successful local food projects in Wisconsin and across the country. Campus food buyers don’t have time to make numerous calls to track down menu items, and they have become used to the one-stop shopping offered by large, wholesale distributors. Campus food projects have created new ways to handle this brokerage role through farmer co-ops, nonprofit organizations, and graduate students, without extracting profits from growers. Food project organizers must consider how to sustain this brokering function over the long term.
Working with food service contracts
In Wisconsin, well over half of college and university campuses contract out their food service operations. University food services that are self-run-managed by the college rather than an outside contractor like Chartwells or Sodexho Marriott-have the most flexibility to buy from local growers. However, even self-run food services are limited in what they can buy because of exclusive contracts. At UW-Madison, for instance, only vendors that go through the bidding process and are awarded contracts can sell more than $5,000 of food annually to the dining service.
Parker found that many schools with contracted food services were interested in buying local food. One food service director commented, “I have snuck through the approved-vendor red tape by paying local purveyors in cash. Our students want to support these local interests, and I want to buy local food.”
Contracted food services make profits by negotiating bulk purchasing nationwide. But in special cases, they have the freedom to buy from local farmers. Northland College, for instance, buys about 20 percent of their produce from local farmers and a local food co-operative. Because of the school’s environmental focus, the students and administration demanded room in the contract for buying local food.
Does college size matter?
Smaller schools may have an easier time locating adequate quantities of food. But where there are enough growers and adequate distribution, large schools are buying locally grown food as well.
“UW-Madison decided to feature local, organic meals in single dining halls rather than offer such meals in all four dining halls simultaneously,” Parker noted. “This shows that all sizes of schools can tailor their local food buying efforts to the availability of local food, labor for processing, and budget.”
Does price matter?
Many campus food service personnel assume that local, sustainable food costs more than food purchased through conventional channels. But this is not always true. Parker learned that products ranging from pasture-raised beef tenderloin to organic potatoes have been sourced in the state at lower prices than their conventional counterparts.
Residence halls with a debit card or à la carte payment plan, where students pay separately for each food item, can sometimes pass on higher food costs to their students. Schools with a pre-paid board plan cannot recover costs above a certain predetermined level. For such schools, price can be a critical issue in local food buying efforts.
To save money and time, Wisconsin food service directors tend to purchase local foods that require minimal preparation. Universities may not have the labor or equipment to process whole products available from local farms-for example, they may not be able to peel and slice root crops.
Parker found that alternative distribution channels, such as natural food distributors and farmer-owned marketing cooperatives, provide growers with opportunities for greater profits than the conventional marketing system provides. Conventional distributors are unlikely to seek out local food for campus customers.
How food is delivered affects the college’s costs and therefore local food buying decisions. Buying most products from a single distributor is cheaper than buying from many individual growers. One food service director said, “Just cutting a check costs $75 when you figure in all of the levels of bureaucracy and the audits. Each time a truck delivers to a loading dock, the stop costs $150 in labor on both sides, so larger shipments are more cost-effective.”
Organizing for change
In order to change campus food systems, student demand for local food must be cultivated and communicated to food service decision makers. Educational efforts promoting local food need to appeal to a diverse group of students, including students from farm families. Because vegetarian students most often make local food buying requests, schools typically seek out local vegetables and fruits. The seasonal availability of many fruits and vegetables in Wisconsin runs counter to the school year, however. There is a clear opportunity to market local, sustainable meat and dairy products year round in Wisconsin.
This project has helped food service directors and their staff understand the importance and ease of buying locally and sustainably grown food. Food service personnel and students like the idea of supporting local farms and businesses, and appreciate the freshness and taste of local foods. And Wisconsin’s farm families are reaping the financial rewards of new markets for sustainably grown food products.
|Wisconsin campus food services interested in buying from local farmers|
|College or university location||Do they now serve locally or sustainably grown foods?||Self-run or contracted?||Have students requested local food?|
|Northland College, Ashland||Yes: carrots, potatoes, onions, grains, etc..||Contracted||Yes: high demand|
|UW-Madison||Yes: apples, potatoes, and other products||Self-run||Yes: high demand|
|Beloit College||Yes: apples, corn chips, and other products||Self-run||Yes: high demand|
|UW-Platteville||Yes: tomatoes, sweet corn, pumpkins||Self-run||No|
|Lawrence University, Appleton||No||Self-run||Yes|
|Edgewood College, Madison||No||Self-run||No: faculty and staff demand|
|UW-Green Bay||Occasionally for special events||Contracted||Yes|
|For more information about any of these campus food services or local food buying at other Wisconsin colleges, please contact CIAS at (608) 265-3704 or firstname.lastname@example.org|
The North Central Region SARE Program provided funding for this research.
Published as Research Brief #55