It’s a challenge the University of Vermont did not shy away from — supporting family farms through the purchase of locally grown and raised produce and meat products.
So, five years ago UVM joined the national Real Food Challenge with the goal to increase the purchase of Vermont food products so that 20 percent of what’s served on campus would be locally grown.
UVM committed to reaching that goal by 2020. Instead, it met the goal this year, three years ahead of schedule. Now, the school has upped its commitment to 25 percent by 2020.
UVM is among 80 colleges and universities around the country that have joined the Real Food Challenge.
Dennis DePaul, UVM’s associate dean of student affairs, said students were the driving force behind joining the Real Food Challenge. DePaul said students convinced the school to join the national effort, which turned out to be an easy sell. “It moved pretty smoothly, because it aligned so easily with the values of this institution and what we try to do,” he said.
UVM had already committed to the Real Food Challenge when the dining services contract was up for renewal two years ago. The goal was included in its request for proposals, and the vendor, Sodexo Campus Services, which had been running UVM’s dining and food venues, agree to work with the school and provide the necessary documentation.
“The biggest part of it is being transparent in your sourcing, where your food is coming from, and being able to provide documentation of that sourcing of where your food is from,” DePaul said
DePaul said not every food service vendor that submitted a bid was willing to provide that level of transparency.
Melissa Zelazny, Sodexo resident district manager at UVM, oversees the 15 dining venues on campus.
“Here at UVM, I oversee the chefs along with our sustainability manager on campus, that we’re meeting the goals of the Real Food campus commitment,” Zelazny said.
Other Vermont schools that have taken on the Real Food Challenge include Sterling College, Lyndon State College, Marlboro College and Middlebury College.
One of the difficulties in buying local produce is the issue of the relatively short growing season in Vermont and the volume of food that the university requires, she said.
“Our academic calendar doesn’t necessarily match up nicely with the growing season,” she said.
As a result, Sodexo tries to come up with creative alternatives. For example, Zelazny said, when locally grown lettuce is not available Sodexo’s cooks will substitute other locally grown greens as much as possible.
Sodexo was a natural partner in UVM’s quest to put more local food on campus.
The company’s Vermont First program is geared toward supplying locally grown food to its 15 institutional clients around the state, including colleges, businesses and hospitals, serving 33,000 meals per day, said Annie Rowell, Sodexo’s Vermont First coordinator.
She said Vermont First encompasses food grown or manufactured in the state, plus a 30-mile radius.
In the last year, Sodexo spent 15.4 percent of its food budget to serve Vermont clients with local food.
A significant part of Rowell’s job is to track food purchases and to come up with strategies to increase the percentage of local food. Another task is to educate local growers on how they can partner with Sodexo through its main distributor, Black River Produce.
“We’ve put on multiple statewide forums about the logistics involved in selling to Sodexo,” she said.
She said the criteria for growers includes volume and consistency, and to match up demand with what’s available locally.
Sodexo conducted a tour last month, stopping at a number of farms in the state.
One of those farms was Butterworks Farm in Westfield.
Jack Lazor, who owns the 150-acre farm with his wife, Anne, said the farm already supplies bulk containers of organic yogurt to UVM through Sodexo. He’d like to take that further and sell the farm’s single-serve yogurt. But Lazor said the price may be beyond the school’s budget. He said organic milk products are more expensive, and single-serve cups add to the cost.
“It’s just that our little cups would be 20 to 30 cents more than Green Mountain (Creamery) Greek yogurt,” Lazor said.
He remains hopeful that if there is enough demand “we might be able to make it happen.”
According to Lazor, Butterworks Farm is the second-oldest organic dairy farm in the country. It has a herd of 45 milking Jerseys. In addition to yogurt, the farm produces kefir milk, a probiotic beverage, and cream.
Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury was another stop. During the winter, the organic vegetable farm supplies Sodexo/UVM with potatoes and carrots.
Locally produced beef is also a growing segment of the Real Food Challenge. With its 13,000 students, Zelazny said obtaining enough volume of locally produced beef and different cuts of meat can be a challenge.
“Again, we can’t do 100 percent because the volume is not there,” she said, adding it would also be cost prohibitive.
Although UVM typically sees a 3 percent to 4 percent baseline increase in food costs, the school’s commitment to local food has not been a budget buster, DePaul said.
“We’ve just shifted how we spend our money, in all honesty,” he said.
When compared to comparable institutions, he said UVM has one of the lowest meal plan rates in the country.
UVM also required Sodexo to partner with locally owned retail food outlets like Skinny Pancake and New World Tortilla. So you won’t see a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell on campus.
Last year, UVM spent 22 percent of its food budget, $1.63 million, on locally produced food, helping to support 150 local farms and food businesses, according to Food Management, an online publication.