Buying local is a way to ‘vote with your fork’, using consumer demand to help shape the economy. Individuals, families and businesses all have some power in this way, but some have more than others.
Family votes with a handful of forks – UMass Amherst Dining votes with 55,000. That’s the number of meals they serve daily during peak season in four dining rooms, 30 retail outlets, as well as in their catering services and their hotel. Over a year, UMass Dining spends $ 25-30 million serving 6 million meals, and they’re doing a lot to invest that in local farms and businesses when sourcing the food they need.
In economic terms, UMass Amherst is what is called an anchor institution – a large organization with a constant demand for goods and services that a community can count on. According to Chris Howland, director of purchasing, logistics and special projects at UMass Amherst Dining, “We’re here for the long haul, with resources to invest in the valley if there are products we can use. ”
Speaking with Kathy Wicks, Director of Sustainability at Howland and UMass Amherst Dining, it’s clear that the university is aware of the purchasing power it holds and tries to exercise it responsibly. Local food supply is a cornerstone.
The school uses a tiered system to prioritize what they buy, first researching products in Massachusetts, then expanding the search to New England and finally within a 250 mile radius of campus. Currently, 8% of their purchases are in Massachusetts and 20% in New England – well above the average of 14.4% that Massachusetts colleges and universities spent on local purchases, as recorded by Farm. to Institution New England in 2017.
Beyond the local, they also take into account many other factors.
“Just buying local is yesterday,” Howland says. “We are also starting to track diversity, equity and inclusion when it comes to our purchases.”
Wicks also mentions sustainability indicators, mostly related to production standards such as “organic” or “cruelty-free”.
“These are things we pay attention to,” says Wicks, “and we encourage our business partners to adopt regenerative practices if they can. She cites the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources as two entities she has seen helping farmers learn, fund and implement changes to meet some of these standards.
In many cases, local farms already have a significant capacity to deliver what the university wants, and good communication and coordination is all that is required. As Wicks explains, “We meet with a number of our local partners in January when they are developing their growth plans,” to see what and when they can deliver.
In other cases, a little more effort is needed, but UMass Amherst Dining and local producers can work together to create the necessary supply. The most powerful thing the university can do here is make a promise.
For some, only the university’s commitment to purchase their products provides sufficient security to grow their business. “We have had a number of partners who have grown simply because of the opportunity to be a supplier to UMass Amherst,” says Wicks.
Howland also shares that the university even wrote letters of support to help farms get loans to grow.
“When a bank sees that they have a customer like UMass who is not going anywhere and can commit to that purchase, it really helps,” he says.
It should be noted that UMass Amherst Dining has the autonomy to set its own priorities in part because they run things in-house, rather than contracting with an outside catering company such as Aramark, Sodexo or Bon Appetit. , the largest such providers for US colleges and universities, according to Inside Higher Ed. “Smaller schools may not have the capacity to do this,” Howland explains – even other UMass campuses.
The main factor fueling UMass Amherst’s ability to buy more local food is its location, Howland explains. “We are blessed in this area. There are challenges in sourcing local food in a city, but here in the valley there is so much rich soil and so much food available.
Howland lists seasonal produce among the easiest local foods to find and notes the progress made in sourcing local proteins, including dairy, meat, seafood, eggs and mushrooms. The UMass Amherst Dining website has a comprehensive list of over 100 local companies and distributors they source from.
Balancing local supply and demand over the seasons remains one of their biggest challenges. “We do most of our business during the academic year between September and May,” Howland explains, but that goes against the growing season for many crops.
“Making sure we coordinate our needs with supplier sourcing is critical,” he says, as is the ability of producers to store their crops and deliver them regularly throughout the year.
Another challenge is the ability of their kitchens to handle incoming local foods.
“The time it takes to prepare the amount of food we need to prepare… is a lot,” says Wicks. Anytime a local producer can peel, cut or process their product, it becomes a more desirable purchase for the university.
Of course, many foods are difficult to grow or find locally in the amounts used by UMass Amherst. Beans and grains are two of those staples, although they’re starting to make headway there, Wicks says, noting their relationship with Ground Up Grains, a local grain mill in Hadley.
How UMass Amherst brings local food to their kitchens is part of that story. From there, the school’s chefs turn these ingredients into meals, trying to cater for many different cultural and food preferences. This presents its own challenges and opportunities.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity is to involve eaters in the same types of discussions the institution has about what responsible decision-making about food looks like. Eating local is an issue to consider, but Wicks mentions several other issues that the university highlights in its educational programming, including climate impacts, health, waste, and the cultural history of different cuisines.
“We really want to make the connection that there are people and systems behind the origin of your food,” she says, “and you can actively participate and shape that multiple times a day.”
Howland adds, “We have a huge opportunity here to change people’s lives in a positive way. Not everyone at UMass has been exposed to the types of things we are capable of, both culinary and how we source. As people go through this, they wake up to what food is capable of, and it’s quite powerful. ”
Jacob Nelson is Communications Coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about the Valley institutions that support the local food economy, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.