Overcoming Obstacles in the Local Food Scene

University of North Carolina food services
The 1.5.0 cafe at the University of North Carolina serves food sourced locally, including grass-fed beef, cage-free eggs, organic produce and sustainably-harvested seafood. (UNC)
By Leslie Wells

Sometimes, the grass is really greener in your own backyard. Since Campus Ecology ran its first case studies on local and sustainable food back in 2003 (see St. Bonaventure and Warren Wilson College), the phenomenon has blossomed, due to increased awareness and the popularity of fresh, local food among students.

In fall 2003, Western Washington University (WWU) began to explore opportunities to purchase foods locally by partnering with Bellwood Acres Apples. Located in the same county, Bellwood affords WWU the opportunity to sell apples and fresh pressed apple cider during apple season from early fall through early winter. According to director of business development, Lisa Philbrook, “Over the last two to three school years we’ve made local purchasing a focused effort with everything from liquid dairy and ice cream, to donuts, to a wide range of vegetables, to sushi, to packaged cookies, and more.”

There is no standardized definition for what counts as “local,” but the school attempts to purchase from the closest supplier available, whether that be within their own Whatcom County, their neighboring Skagit County, within the state of Washington, or neighboring states when necessary.

However, the bigger issue is that colleges and universities require large quantities of foods to accommodate their students and dining locations. “In order to serve items in our dining locations on campus, we generally need a very large volume of any given item,” Philbrook says. “Some small farmers or producers may not immediately be able to meet our volume needs -so we are working to plan ahead with them to meet our needs as they are able.”

Philbrook also mentions insurance policies can prove challenging for small farmers who may be willing to sell produce. “The University has insurance requirements to protect the safety of the campus community, so some small growers and producers may not be able to meet this requirement on their own. That’s where working with a distributor or a cooperative of some sort can be of benefit.”  She explains that since all vendors must have liability insurance, some farmers have joined larger groups such as Grow Washington, a worker-managed cooperative organization which is able to arrange for insurance coverage and makes smaller farms viable food sources for WWU.

WWU accredits its success largely to striving to build strong relationships with local farmers and co-ops and dedicating acreage for upcoming growing seasons. Philbrook also notes that “Communicating to our ‘customers’ on campus which items are coming from local vendors through a wide range of types of signage and marketing communication efforts,” has been instrumental. 

“Year by year we’ve tried to grow our program with local vendors; it’s a progressive effort. Take it one step at a time,” Philbrook advises. “We’ve been able to make progress and we’re really excited about that.”

On the east coast, UNC Chapel Hill shines as a leader in the movement toward local purchasing. The university has been increasingly involved in sustainable practices in past years, including programs to compost, reduce water wastage, and go trayless in dining halls. More recently, UNC began to focus on purchasing products locally. In 2009, approximately 20.7 percent of foods purchased at UNC were locally grown, raised, or processed.

“It’s our goal to purchase locally whenever possible,” says R.J. LaPorte, marketing coordinator of Dining Services. In the event an item cannot be purchased locally, the university tries to purchase organic, fair trade, or otherwise environmentally-conscientious products. UNC’s latest initiative is a retail endeavor known as 1.5.0.- a campus eatery that features locally-sourced food including grass-fed beef, cage-free eggs, organic produce and sustainably-harvested seafood. The name stands for the Carolina Dining Services’ definition of “local purchasing,” which includes items purchased within a 150 mile radius.

Before implementing their own local foods program, however, colleges and universities should be aware of other logistical challenges including delivery, price, and community support of local foods. Since local foods potentially come from a variety of sources rather than from one distributor, communication and coordination of deliveries can be challenging. Additionally, while local foods are not necessarily more expensive than other foods, organics can cost 20 to 30 percent more and grass-fed beef can cost around 75 percent more than regular products, according to Scott Myers, director of Food and Vending. This may prove another challenge for facilities hoping to incorporate these types of foods.

UNC is lucky to be amidst a community of what Myers terms “sustainably-minded” people who support local food purchasing, making the implementation of such endeavors as 1.5.0. easier. LaPorte and Myers also attribute some of the programs’ success to free advertising through listservs of environmental student groups and networks, and several student articles highlighting local food purchasing in UNC’s newspaper. Additionally, UNC’s dining facilities label foods that are purchased locally and offer farmers markets and “green specials,” where meals are produced from locally-purchased products. These efforts in dining halls serve to spread awareness about local foods and help students make a connection between locally-purchased products and great quality and taste.

LaPorte and Myers advise other schools interested in initiating local foods programs to arrange a meeting with a group of administrators and other key faculty, staff, and students to plan and set clear goals for the program. They suggest starting small-not with a retail endeavor such as 1.5.0., but by offering local foods in salad bars at the diner to begin to increase awareness and support, and to take small steps from there. 

According to LaPorte, “Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.  They are happy to see a fresh, local, and chef produced food option located in an in-line retail dining location.”