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College campus cafeterias open market opportunities for local, sustainable food

May 26, 2011 | 0 comments

Local sourcing of food has been growing in recent years and the trend has been even more pronounced on college campuses. Rich Lampe, with the University of Wisconsin System, noted that with 13 four-year campuses in the state and a food spend in excess of $30 million the system holds lots of opportunity for locally sourced and sustainable foods.

"Our students want these products and they are our driver. We hope to grow the program more. It's the right thing to do," he said, speaking at the Institutional Food Market Coalition (IFM) of Dane County's fifth annual meeting May 17 in Madison.

The 100 or so people at the conference included wholesale buyers as well as institutional buyers and managers - those who make decisions on food for hospitals, school districts and college campuses, among others.

IFM is a public-private partnership that has been working for several years to build these institutional markets for local food through technical assistance, outreach and education. The goal has been to facilitate sales between Wisconsin producers and institutions that purchase larger quantities of locally grown food, like college campuses.

Lampe said that the UW-Whitewater, for example, has made an effort to put local sourcing in its request for proposals (RFP) for the food that is served to college students in its meal plan and other food operations. The campus began that process in May 2009. "Maybe local wasn't the biggest buzzword back then, but it has grown," said Lampe.

The committee that included students, staff members and administrators addressed sustainability in things like cleaning supplies and office products as well as cafeteria food. Of the 600 program points, he said, 35 were geared to sustainability. At that point in the discussion, the committee decided to place an emphasis on fair trade, locally grown, organic foods and the university set a 10 percent goal.

The campus has already reached 17.5 percent as of May, he said, for local foods and the "spend" for those locally produced foods totals $420,000.

Lampe said different university campuses may have a different take on what constitutes local - they may be more regional - but the idea of sustainability is woven throughout the various plans. That aspect was generated by students and they will grow this, he said.

On many campuses, RFP specifies that the food service system work in collaboration with an on-campus garden, he said. There is a commitment to expand the viable local supply of food and branch out into other areas, he said, like cage-free eggs, fair trade coffee and milk free of artificial growth hormones.

At Whitewater, the students also are looking at things like making sure waste kitchen oil ends up in biofuel.

Local food sales are also building through markets like grocery stores thanks to efforts from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). Lois Federman, an agricultural marketing consultant with the department, was at the IFM conference to talk about her efforts to get local producers together with local markets.

Sometimes it's as simple as getting them to speak the same language, she said. As director of the Something Special from Wisconsin program, Federman put out a call to all the participants in the program, asking if they wanted to be in a wholesale catalog going out to grocers. There was a resounding response and the glossy full-color catalog, as well as the website tool, has earned rave reviews from the retailers, because it was built in their language, she says.

The catalog includes meat, dairy, produce, bakery, liquor and frozen food products, as well as health and beauty items.

Federman believes that there are opportunities for conventional farmers to diversify with direct marketing as a way to add to the bottom line on their farms. For her family's own farm, and for others she has worked with, sales have grown incrementally and with a little bit of identification, the products can help earn their place in the family farm's checkbook.

"There can be a living made from this," she says. "My passion is in commercial agriculture and I know this can help those farmers. People are looking for this type of production."

Federman, who is on the advisory council for IFM, noted that the conference drew many people who are in charge of purchasing sizable amounts of food for their institutional kitchens. "This movement needs people who can raise large quantities of food," she says.

With her brother, Federman started the first meat Community Supported Agriculture in the state at the family farm, Marr's Valley View Farms, near Mineral Point. Federman uses her family's experience and the things she has learned at DATCP to give workshops on direct marketing of meat.

Her family has been in the direct marketing game for a few years and 30 percent of their family farm's production now goes to the direct marketing facet of their business.

"We've been doing it since 1999 and it took a little while to grow the business," she said. But her own experience and the things she hears from others at food tastings and events like the Madison conference make her bullish on the local food element as a way to help commercial farmers.

"There are a lot of people that have forged the way on this. I get so passionate about it because there is so much room for growth," she said.

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