The College Food Project: Northland College Case Study
Posted July 2001
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.
What made it possible?
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.
Because of this strong customer demand, Northland was able to negotiate their food service contract to include locally grown and organic food on their menu. Northland’s food service is contracted out to Chartwells, which is a subsidiary of the multinational The Compass Group. Northland’s contract with Chartwells stipulates that their dining center will serve locally grown and organic food whenever possible. This agreement is very unusual for Chartwells. But it shows that customer demand can encourage food services to buy from local farmers, even when the food service provider is a for-profit contractor. The contract between the college and Chartwells is short and gets rewritten annually.
Even though Northland’s food service contract outlines local and organic priorities, the success of the program depends on the work of a very motivated dining center director and staff. Campus organizers want to institutionalize the project so that it will be carried on after current food service staff members leave the campus.
Who got it started?
In 1994, a group of Northland students started the local, organic food efforts. Krista Pierson, a Northland graduate, remembers how this happened. “Students rounded up other students who were interested in the local community and in supporting local farmers. They went off campus and saw local farms, which encouraged them to request locally-grown food at the dining center.”
At a workshop in southern Wisconsin, Director of Student Development Tom Wojciechowski presented a more detailed history of Northland’s local food project.
“Northland has an environmental focus. The environmental studies program is our largest draw of students. … Some of the students say, ‘You know we’re learning this stuff in the classroom but … you’re not walking the talk.’
“In 1994, a group of our students in a class on sustainability chose as their research subject organic, locally-grown produce in the cafeteria. That resulted in them digging into what was going on in the cafeteria, and going out and meeting … farmers in the Bayfield peninsula. [They] said, ‘Okay, what is produced in this area that we can use in the cafeteria?’ That was the easy part. Then, ‘What’s it going to cost?’ ‘Can they produce it?’ ‘Can we store it?’ ‘Can we get it on time?’ The study ended up being called Potatoes and Onions.
“At the end of the project they invited the president, all of the college administration, some of the local organic farmers, all of the students and everybody else on campus to … a presentation on how this ought to work. They said that for … six cents a day per student, we could get organic potatoes and onions in here. The student senate said ‘Will you guys support six cents a day on your meal plan to do this?’ And they passed it.”
Northland students have many reasons for demanding local and organic food in their dining center including contributing to the local economy, social justice, family farm preservation, personal health, concerns about bio-engineered corn and soybeans, and concerns about bovine growth hormone.
How is it working now?
In 2000, Northland’s daily menu included organic carrots, potatoes, and onions purchased directly from local farmers. They also served local apples and many organic grains and vegetables bought through the local food cooperative from regional suppliers. They are looking for a supplier for organic and BGH-free milk and other dairy products, and they are trying to find a local supplier for free-range eggs.
Northland buys most of their organic produce from one local farm – Willow Run, farmed by Lee and Judy Stadnyk. The Stadnyks grow certified organic potatoes and carrots for Northland. Lee Stadnyk was a professor at Northland for 24 years before starting his farming career. He stresses that another farmer began supplying organic produce to Northland several years ago, before he and his wife got involved in 1999.
The Stadnyks carry $2 million in liability insurance to satisfy Northland’s dining service. This insurance costs them $180 a year.
Lee describes the process of contracting with Northland’s dining service:
“My wife Judy and I sat down with Jeff and his head cook, and we let them choose what varieties of carrots and potatoes they wanted. They selected two types of very sweet carrots. The varieties—Nantes coreless and Sweetness II hybrid—are usually not recommended for commercial growers, because they are brittle and hard to dig. Our job is to come through with the high-quality vegetables through the season. We deliver weekly throughout the school year. At our farm, we added a walk-in cooler and also an attached prep and storage room. That’s where we store the carrots and potatoes from harvest until delivery.”
Lee stresses that food quality is only one of the many important issues leading colleges to buy from local farmers. “An increasing numbers of consumers—including students—are also concerned about food safety and sustainable production methods.” Stadnyk says, “Students have to take the initiative and demand a change in the way that they eat. The growers can’t do it. It needs to be the students. And they need to be backed by the college’s administration.”
Spangenberg pays local farmers based on retail organic prices. For instance, he buys organic carrots throughout the school year for $1.00 a pound, and organic potatoes for $.55 a pound. During the 2000-2001 school year, each week Willow Run delivered 200 pounds of organic potatoes and 100 pounds of organic carrots to the school.
Sometimes, the food Northland buys from local organic farms is more expensive than the food available through Chartwells’ regular broadline suppliers. Originally, students agreed to a slight increase in the cost of their meal plan to cover the costs. Another way that Chartwells makes up the difference is by economizing on other items on the menu. Northland administrator Tom Wojciechowski explains:
“I’d say that it comes down to what we value. …Most of the items that we are doing local and organic cost a little more. We do all kinds of trade-offs. We do a steak night twice a month that is kind of a high cost meal. We could go down to one day a month with that and save enough money to bring in another organic product.”
Spangenberg agrees that extra costs are paid by the students and the college:
“Speaking on behalf of Chartwells, my employer, cost is a huge issue. Chartwells is in it to make money. They’ll go out nationwide and make the best purchase they can on potatoes. They want every unit [college dining service] to use the potatoes that they have contracted. That’s how they get the lowest price possible. …[But they] have loosened up. … They are finally saying, ‘the customer who pays the bills is pretty important, and maybe we need to take a look at local purchasing …’ It [depends on] how strongly the students want [local organic food] because Chartwells isn’t going to lose money. … I guess that the cost question comes down to the institution and their willingness to put their money where the students want it.”
It takes a lot of work to process farmer-direct produce in Northland’s kitchens. In many food service kitchens, preparation is minimal because broadline distributors bring frozen food that is ready to cook and even fresh food that is prepared and ready to serve. But, vegetables that come from Willow Run need to be washed and peeled or chopped, which takes a significant amount of labor. Spangenberg says, “It really isn’t the carrots or the potatoes, it’s the labor to process them.” But because unemployment is high in the Ashland area, labor is relatively cheap. This makes peeling and chopping carrots and potatoes an expense that can be justified. The farm-direct organic food is cheaper than its pre-processed (peeled, sliced, frozen, etc.) conventionally-grown equivalents would be, so this helps make up for the price of the labor.
Over the past few years, Chartwells has become more agreeable to local and organic buying. Wojciechowski describes the shift: “From my perspective, Chartwells … is getting much more customer oriented. If I say, “I want this stuff,” then they will pull the strings to allow Jeff to do it. If I don’t say that, or if the students don’t push for it, they will go back to what their national program is.”
Some Northland freshmen arrive at college asking for locally-grown and organic foods, but many more learn about these issues while they are on campus, including right in the dining center.
Dining Center Director Jeff Spangenberg explains the importance of signs identifying the local and sustainable products. “Marketing is huge. … we can put a sign up that says ‘organic apples from Bayfield’…[students] walk through the line, grab an apple and they say ‘organic!’ and they eat it and they think it’s great.”
Organic raw carrots are also labeled on the salad bar at every lunch and dinner. But when organic local carrots, onions, and potatoes are cooked into stir-frys or casseroles, it is harder to identify them. So Spangenberg uses a sign at the beginning of the cafeteria line that lists ingredients. Organic ingredients are highlighted with stars: yellow for onions, orange for carrots, and so on.
Farmer Lee Stadnyk teaches Northland students informally during field trips to Willow Run farm. Also, the Stadnyks periodically set up displays and talk with students in the Northland cafeteria. They bring in fresh produce, soil samples and petroleum, and present an educational show-and-tell that contrasts conventional and sustainable farming practices.
Keeping it going
Spangenberg and Wojciechowski are both working to find ways to make sure that local and organic buying continues at Northland. According to Spangenberg, “We are working towards longevity. You can get something started with some folks like us, but to get it in there long-term, it has to get into the contract. Our contract is year-to-year, but a lot of the state schools are 2 or 3 years.”
“This is a lot of work and we need to keep at it. We need to start with relationships with farmers, producers, the food service … The students have to keep pushing, they need to keep the pressure on, and then I think you need to institutionalize it. … Jeff’s company’s vice president [from Chartwells] came out and I pushed him really hard about what they could do to impact the supply network nationwide …they have a lot of buying power, and we’ll see what happens. He was taking a lot of notes!”