Institutional Markets for Sustainable Agriculture Products

Final Report for LNC99-157

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1999: $61,875.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $25,000.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
John Hendrickson
CIAS, UW-Madison
George Stevenson
UW-Madison, Center for Integrated Ag. Systems
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Project Information


The College Food Project sought to understand the opportunities and barriers to marketing local and sustainable farm products to colleges and universities and develop marketing linkages between such institutions and local farms. Barriers such as liability issues, convenience, cost, and lack of consumer demand do exist. However, where there is demand and committed food service personnel, barriers can be overcome. Self-run food services appear to have more flexibility to buy from local farms than contracted food services and marketing cooperatives or local distributors make local buying more convenient for both buyers and farmers. The project generated or increased local buying at six institutions and helped over 25 growers or marketing cooperatives sell to institutions. At many institutions, however, real and perceived barriers kept both interested and disinterested food service directors from local buying.

Project Objectives:

1. Evaluate the opportunities and barriers for increased utilization of local, sustainable agricultural products by analyzing the preferences, buying practices, and protocols of colleges and university food purchasing decision-makers.

2. Explore the practices and policies of food service distributors to evaluate the opportunities and barriers they present for increased sourcing of local and sustainable food products.

3. Explore and evaluate strategies for working with students, faculty, and alumni to increase demand for local, sustainable food products within a small private college and a large public university.


Materials and methods:

Preceding this SARE-funded project, CIAS initiated a self-funded study of existing local, sustainable buying at institutions across the United States (see Something to Cheer About at This project identified a set of barriers to local buying and precipitated a set of hypotheses or assumptions about where local buying was most apt to take place and be successful. These hypotheses included that local buying was more likely at smaller schools, those with self-run food services, and schools with debit/a la carte meal plans than at large schools, those with contracted food services, and schools with board meal plans. One of the goals of the SARE project was to test these hypotheses.

Food service directors at all 34 Wisconsin colleges and universities were interviewed by phone about their buying practices, preferences, and policies. Next, food distributors and marketing cooperatives were contacted to learn more about how they operate and their ability and interest in linking local and/or sustainable producers with institutions. Personal meetings and visits were made to several food service operations, distributors, and farms. Concurrent to these activities, considerable time was put into working directly with the project’s home food service operation at UW-Madison. This portion of the project was oriented toward an “action research” approach and was designed to put knowledge into practice by trying to develop or expand local, sustainable buying. It also allowed project staff the opportunity to better understand the rationales and needs of food service administrators using participant observation methods. During one semester, the project’s graduate research assistant—following a participant observation model called Case Extension Logic—attended five UW-Madison Housing Food Service administrative meetings, two “tastings” (meetings to taste and evaluate new foods that might be added to the menus), and sat in on planning meetings where administrators ordered foods for a special organic local dinner served at two campus dining centers that featured meat and potatoes. These interactions let the graduate students hear in detail what the administrators thought about local and organic foods, and how they perceive the process of introducing the foods.

Consumer education efforts involved tabling at meals and developing literature (such as “table tents”) to educate students about the impacts of their food choices. Having project staff available to track down supplies for local-grown meals made it possible for the food service to do far more local buying than previously anticipated. Given the success of having project staff help source local food, grant funds were then used to hire an undergraduate student intern at the University of Wisconsin to help with local meal planning, student education, and publicity.

Project staff attempted to work more closely with food services and student organizers at other institutions to develop stronger local buying. Distance, relationship building, and other factors contributed to these efforts having limited success.

Throughout the project, staff kept in touch with organizers who are working on similar projects around the country and read trade journals to learn about news and trends in the fields of agriculture and campus food service.

Publicity (press releases), networking, and workshops were used to inform growers, food service directors, students, and the general public about the project and its findings. Grower workshops were held at major farming conferences in Wisconsin including the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference (La Crosse), The Value-Added Conference (Eau Claire), and the Urban-Rural Conference (East Troy). A special workshop for food service directors was held in East Troy. Having food service directors with experience with local purchasing speaking to their peers proved to be an effective means to garner interest in local buying. Project staff also presented at two National Association of College and University Food Services Association (NACUFS) meetings in Wisconsin and Indiana. Going to events specifically geared for food service professionals was a better method than trying to get food service staff to special events created by the project or to farming conferences.

In 2002 all 34 institutions were contacted again by phone to conduct follow-up interviews to determine if and how food services and their purchasing practices had changed and to update food service directors about the College Food Project.

Research results and discussion:

The following discussion of results is broken down by objective.

Objective 1. Evaluate the opportunities and barriers for increased utilization of local, sustainable agricultural products by analyzing the preferences, buying practices, and protocols of colleges and university food purchasing decision-makers.

Food Service Interviews

In the first year of this project (1999), telephone interviews were conducted with food service directors at all 34 colleges and universities in Wisconsin. These interviews were designed to learn about each institution's food service, their level of current local/sustainable food buying, interest in and ability to purchase local/sustainable foods, and demand among customers (students). Food service director interviews resulted in a database (see table at end of report) of institutions indicating (1) their interest level and/or current level of local and/or sustainable food buying, (2) consumer (student) demand for local sustainable foods, and (3) the institution’s ability (in terms of policies and regulations) to buy from local farms. This database (which, for project purposes, included contact information for all food service directors) became a useful resource in outreach efforts to both growers and other food services.

The interviews revealed that many schools do some limited local buying, especially for bakery products, dairy products, and eggs. Other items already purchased locally tend to be those that require minimum preparation and are considered special by customers because they are locally raised (Examples include potatoes, carrots, apples, pumpkins, cheese curd, brats, tomatoes, and sweet corn).

Directors specifically mentioned the following barriers to buying locally and organically-grown agricultural products: food safety protocols, insurance, consistency of supply, single vendor contracts, and price.

Overall, the interviews confirmed that barriers such as liability issues, convenience, cost, approved vendor restrictions, and lack of consumer (student) demand do exist. However, it also became apparent that where there is committed food service personnel and student demand, barriers can be overcome. Project organizers were pleased with the number of schools who were interested or already involved in local buying. In terms of the hypotheses listed above, the interviews:

Confirmed that self-run food services appear to have more flexibility to buy from local producers than contracted food services. All but one of the schools with existing, substantial local or sustainable food buying efforts are self-run. This is not a completely cut and dry issue, however, given that the school with the best local, sustainable buying program is contracted and local-buying was reported by other contracted food services. Furthermore, interest level at contracted schools was significant and suggests that further work needs to be done to help those schools explore ways to buy locally within the policies stipulated by their contracts.

Suggest that size is not necessarily as significant factor as originally supposed. Case in point: UW-Madison overcame size/volume issues by decided to feature local and/or organic meals in one or two dining halls at a time rather than attempting to offer such meals in all four dining halls simultaneously. Smaller schools may still find it easier to locate adequate product quantities, but where there is significant supply infrastructure (both a critical mass of growers AND adequate distribution channels) such as Wisconsin enjoys (especially for specific products like organic dairy, sustainably raised meats, and organic or IPM vegetables), even large schools can get involved.

Indicate that an institution's meal plan type (debit card/a la carte versus pre-paid board plan) can affect the institution's flexibility and influences how critical the price issue is for food buyers. However, there are not many of the standard board plans in existence so this may not be a significant barrier. A more important factor is the food service’s willingness to be flexible in their food/meal pricing schemes so that if local organic meals are more expensive, they can be balanced with cheaper meals.

A narrative summary of the interviews follows:

Almost all of the dining service directors were very aware of the growing popularity of locally grown and sustainably grown food. Many of them care about where, how and by whom their own food is produced. Some also care about these criteria for the food they buy for their institutions. But many are not completely free to buy from local farmers and other local processors. A director at one UW campus reported "there are local purveyors of cheese curd and sweet corn - that I have snuck through [the approved-vendor red tape] by paying them in cash. Our students want to support these local interests, and I want to buy local food and publicize it."

Some directors report that their students have requested locally and sustainably-grown food. This seems to most often come from vegetarians or vegans. Some students have specifically asked for organic food. Some directors are already buying and serving some locally and sustainably grown food in their dining centers. Others did so in the past but have stopped, usually for reasons of cost, convenience, and liability.

Some food services on campuses in the state are “self-run,” meaning that their food service operations are managed by employees of the college itself. Others are contracted, meaning that the entire food service is paid for by the college, but managed, from soup to nuts, by a private company. Nationally, back in 1984, contractors had 43% of the college and university foodservice market share. By 2000, they controlled and estimated 65% of the colleges and university market share.

Leading Contractors and the number of college food services they managed in 2000:
Sodexho Marriott 900
Aramark 400
Compass Group 610
The Wood Company 70
(Source of all figures above: Foodservice Director’s 2000 Contractor Industry Census Report, 2000)

Chartwells manages eight of the 12 UW campuses; Sodexho-Marriott manages several private colleges. These dining services are required by their parent company to buy from approved vendors. The approved vendors are often broadline distributors like Sysco, Alliant, and Reinhardt. These companies rarely, if ever, carry local Wisconsin farm products. But even at schools that contract their food service, some space exists for buying locally. At UW-La Crosse, for instance, the Chartwells-managed food service prepared catered organic meals for the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in March 2000. Conference organizers sourced the organic and local foods for the event. Chartwells, instead of buying the food from the farmers and then charging conference attendees for the meals, avoided concerns about liability and approved vendor requirements by not actually buying the food. Instead, they charged a handling fee for the cooking and preparation services, but never legally took possession of the food. Northland College also contracts their food service to Chartwells, but they still buy organic and local food.

For the past several years, Northland College has bought around 20% of their produce from local organic farmers and a local food cooperative. Because of their environmental curriculum and mission, the school administration stipulated in contracts with Chartwells that, whenever possible, they should buy local and organic foods. The farmers that have supplied food do not try to sell at a low cost to be competitive with wholesale distributors. Instead, the college is committed to paying a price that is fair. This past season they bought carrots, potatoes, and onions throughout the school year from a local organic farmer (the farmer was a professor at Northland 10 years ago). During the year, the farmer participated in many educational events at the college, and hosted student visits to his farm. The college paid him $1.00 a pound for organic carrots, $.55 a pound for organic potatoes, and $.75 a pound for organic onions.

Directors specifically mentioned the following barriers to buying locally and sustainably grown agricultural products: HACCP food safety protocols (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point—an FDA program focusing on preventing hazards that could cause food-borne illnesses by applying science-based controls, from raw material to finished products), insurance, consistency of supply, single vendor contracts, and price. UW Whitewater’s director addressed cost and convenience: "Buying from a single vendor is much cheaper. Just cutting a check costs $75 when you figure in all the levels of bureaucracy and the UW audits. Each time a truck delivers to a loading dock, the stop costs $150 in labor on both sides, so larger shipments are more cost-effective."

A very important, although not surprising, finding from the interviews was that the dining center directors’ attitude is vital to local and sustainable buying. At every school where any local buying was happening, the dining center director was enthusiastic about it and had worked to make it happen. Even at schools where students had not requested local foods (UW-Platteville, for instance) local foods were on the menu because the dining center director wanted them. Some directors had helped rewrite contracts to stipulate that local farmers be patronized whenever possible. Still others were getting around buying protocols by going “off-specification” to buy locally-raised foods instead of just the conventional foods offered by their UW contracted vendors. As barometers of student opinion and national trends, dining center directors make choices that can exclude or include local farmers. They interpret policies and protocols and they decide whether to take on the extra work and possible extra expense of buying from local farmers.

A great piece of news from the interviews was that most of the directors bought food for their own families directly from farmers. Many of them care about where, how and by whom their food – that they themselves eat –is produced. A few also care about these criteria for the food they buy for their institutions. Unfortunately, most directors did not know where or how to get local and organic food. Knowledge of distribution channels is a barrier. Only a few of the food service directors were aware of the green distributors in Wisconsin that carry local and organic foods. Most directors wanted information about how and from whom they can order local and organically-grown food. The director from Lawrence University, for instance, asked how she could change the way she orders food. "How can I get my distributors to distinguish [between locally grown and sustainably grown and conventional food]? Or do they only spec out produce by price? Where can I get information on alternative distributors?" Interestingly, most directors’ ideas about local and sustainable food were limited to fresh fruit and vegetables, although a wide variety of locally produced food is available in Wisconsin, including dairy, meat, grains, and processed foods. This is perhaps because most of the requests for local/organic food come from vegetarians and vegans. One recommendation stemming from this project is that local food organizers need to find ways to promote local meats and spur meat eaters to care about their food in similar ways that many vegetarian do.

About one-quarter of the directors said that their students or other customers had asked for organic foods. A few said that their students had requested locally-grown foods. From Beloit’s director: “Beloit students care. There are many dabbling vegans; students often ask for local and organic food; half of the entrees served in the dining hall are vegetarian”

Food Service Interviews, Take Two

In the third year of the project (2002), phone interviews were repeated to ascertain if and how food services and their purchasing practices had changed and to update food service directors about the College Food Project. Although quite a few directors expressed strong—or at least some—interest in local, sustainable buying at the beginning of the project, most food service directors report little or no progress on local buying in the follow-up interviews. This speaks volumes about the need for direct and consistent support and assistance such as was provided by the project staff to the UW-Madison food service. Clearly, change requires change agents.

A specific focus of this second round of interviews was to probe food service directors further about the barriers to purchasing local/sustainable agricultural products by campus food services. Results of these conversations include the following observations about barriers to local buying and ways to overcome them:

Time. The time commitment involved in finding and communicating with local growers and suppliers and working with them to meet the various needs of a food service is prohibitive and is not part of the regular responsibilities of staff. Farmer-direct food buying is more difficult for institutions than buying from distributors (which is often automated and a full range of food service products are available).

Possible solutions: 1. Utilize a student intern to serve as a “forager” for local farm products. 2. Hold informational workshops for growers to learn about the specifics of working with and providing product to the food service. Even with an intern, UW food service staff expressed a desire to conduct “training seminars” where local growers could learn about the ins and outs of selling to the University. This would help avoid food service staff having to explain all the protocols and procedures individually over the phone.

Size. Many of the larger universities (and some small institutions too) felt that the small scale of most of the local growers and even local vendors would never be able meet their needs. Also, many schools feel pressure to buy in large volumes to achieve price breaks and this is often not possible with small growers.

Possible solutions: Identify the larger distributors of local products and buy through them, encourage local growers to sell through a local distributor or organize among themselves (marketing cooperatives) in order to increase volume, consistency of supply, and ability to deliver, etc.

Cost. Cost is seen as prohibitive, often based on the perception of organic products as costing a premium. Some directors assumed this was true and a serious barrier but had not really checked it out, while a few spoke of particular examples. Schools with food services using a board plan further felt that since the added cost could not be passed onto the student that they could not consider products of greater cost.

Possible solutions: Move to a debit or a la carte system to allow extra cost to be passed on to the students. Food services with a la carte/debit systems report that students seem pleased to have the choice to buy local or organic and a regular small percentage are willing to pay the extra cost. Also, cost is not always greater or prohibitive, and more thorough sourcing might turn up acceptable prices…again, a student intern can be helpful here.

Contracted food services. Contract food services perceived themselves as unable to do anything not specified in the contract, i.e. purchase outside of the prime vendor or “purchasing plan.” Annual performance evaluations for food service directors (employed by the food service contractor) include an assessment of their compliance with the purchasing plan. Quote: “I am very interested personally in purchasing locally, however I am evaluated annually on my compliance with the purchasing plan as specified by my employer.” However, there are positive examples of schools with contracted food services that buy locally and organically (Northland College in Wisconsin and Evergreen State College in WA).

Possible solutions: If the commitment to purchase locally/sustainably or organically raised products is written into the food service contract, then it happens. The college is the client. The contractor bids for the job and seeks to please the college and serve its needs and special requests as long as they are written into the contract. The college administration and those involved in setting up the contract can exert some control in such situations. Therefore, education aimed at administrators could yield a commitment on the part of the college and positive changes within the food service.

Another possible solution: Direct information at the food service contractors to encourage them to buy from distributors that are purchasing a percentage of local products or direct the info at the distributors themselves… this is unlikely to yield results with the big corporations, however.

Liability. Many smaller growers do not purchase liability insurance for their products and this is a requirement to sell through most distributors, who must require that to serve the food service contractors. Some of the food service directors also perceive organic products and products coming from small farms as potentially unsafe and unlikely to meet food safety requirements. Many food service directors interviewed said that food safety regulations including HACCP would limit them from buying from local farmers. But other food service directors consider foods bought directly from local farms and organic foods to be safer than food from broadline distributors. Bill Behling, food service director at Beloit College, has not let issues of food safety liability get in the way of local buying. He says, “I think that liability is probably the most bogus argument of all. I’m liable no matter who I buy from. Just because I buy it from Sysco, it just means someone else will get sued in the process. I’ve gotten produce in from some of the big suppliers that came in some of the worst conditions.”

Possible solutions: Education is needed to dismiss false fears regarding the handling and overall safety of small scale agricultural products, such as through farm tours, info on organic regulations, etc. Financial assistance for small producers to obtain and maintain liability insurance might help. Organizing local growers as a coop or other organized group to bring the individual expense down may offer a simple solution. In some cases it may be important for local growers to receive additional training about post-harvest handling practices to ensure that local supplies are of top quality.

Demand. Student demand is a key ingredient to motivating food service to buy locally or organically. Where student demand is absent, very little interest/awareness exists within the food service and vice versa. Many food service directors agreed that if student demand were present, that food service would be motivated to respond and that the colleges themselves would be more likely to react by incorporating into their food service contracts the right to purchase from local vendors and growers. One major obstacle in educating dining hall eaters is that students usually only frequent dormitory cafeterias when they are first and second year students before moving off campus.

Possible solutions: Table tents, flyers, and other literature can be useful but more positive results and interaction can occur with staffed information tables with both students and farmers to talk to students about sustainable agriculture and local food systems while they wait in line. As with advertising, repetition helps. The more students see and hear about local food and sustainable agriculture the more they are likely to learn and develop awareness of the issues and their potential impact as consumers. So, getting stories in the student papers or on student radio, posting flyers, making table tents, and clearly labeling all local and sustainable foods on the cafeteria line is well worth the effort.

Personal interest. The personal interest of a food service director in purchasing and preparing local/sustainable products has variable impact on actual purchases. Some directors stated strong personal conviction on the subject, but felt that their “hands were tied” due to prime vendor restrictions and buying specifications. Others with strong personal interest seemed to exert significant influence on their college’s willingness and ability to purchase locally/sustainably. Colleges with food service directors who expressed no personal interest were uniformly not engaging in local buying. Quotes from food service directors:

“I am very personally interested. I think local buying would be a great marketing tool. I would love to be spending dollars locally and have the Kenosha community view us as supportive of local farmers and not as the stereotype ‘big corporate giant.’”
“I strongly support local farmers and businesses, but my hands are tied. This is another case of the little guys being eaten up by the big guys.”

Possible solutions: Tap into latent interest in local and sustainable foods by asking food service directors and cooks whether they shop at farmers’ markets or have their own garden. They may not immediately recognize that the fresh, local foods that they enjoy in their home are possible to bring into the dining hall setting.

Research conclusions:

At the campus level, the University of Wisconsin has emerged as a national leader in local and organic food buying. The University began by offering one local, sustainable meal each year, in the fall. They then started having this special meal twice a year (once each semester) and also began offering the meal in different dining halls on different nights. The next big step was offering some local and organic foods year round on the regular menu (including apples, potatoes, blue corn chips, and hamburgers). Countless students have eaten these meals and been exposed to educational messages about local food systems and sustainable and organic agriculture. Much of the success has been due to the unwavering support of the food service director. An example of his firm commitment to local and organic foods is the organic hamburger now featured daily in the dining halls. The first year these hamburgers were introduced, reaction was less than positive from students. The burgers just did not sell. The director believed that much of this was due to the hamburger being leaner than their regular patties. The organic burgers needs different cooking temperatures and times and also did not hold up well on the serving line where hamburgers are routinely kept warm until they are sold. The director worked hard to get kitchen staff to prepare the burgers correctly and not hold them too long. Unfortunately, the burgers still did not sell well. The director heard from kitchen staff that some students assumed that the “organic hamburgers” were some sort of vegetarian burger. But rather than decided that this was an experiment that failed, the director decided to drop the “conventional” hamburger and ONLY sell organic burgers the following year. He is now searching for an organic bun and organic cheese for cheeseburgers. (Even though Wisconsin certainly has plenty of local and organic cheese available, no one currently makes a pre-sliced cheese that meets the food services specifications.)

The above anecdote about organic hamburger speaks volumes to the commitment of the UW food service to local and organic foods. Ordinarily, if the students do not buy a certain food, it is cut from the menu. The administrators follow buying patterns with a complex computer program called C-bord MMS Menu Management, which weaves together menu planning, recipes, and cash-register returns for each food they serve.

It is perhaps no big surprise that Madison, Wisconsin is the first place that the food service of a large public university has decided to include organic and locally-grown foods on their regular menu. Wisconsin is a center of organic farming nationally, coming in third behind California and Washington in total number of certified organic farms. Madison has one of the largest farmers markets in the country. UW-Madison is home to many students, faculty, and staff that are strong activists. Representatives of student government (Associated Students of Madison), organizers of the vibrant anti-sweatshop coalition on campus, and members of the sustainable agriculture student group all have supported reforms to the buying practices of the UW-Madison food services. Many of the students on campus come from farm backgrounds and they want to support Wisconsin farmers. Students and professors throughout the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and other parts of the university support the idea of buying food from local farmers.

In some cases, merely bring people together to discussion the challenges and opportunities has wrought change. At UW-Madison, for example, the food service director thought that UW System regulations prohibited his food service from buying meats that were not processed in federally inspected processing plants. There are only a few USDA-inspected facilities in the region, so this regulation cut local farmers out of the market of supplying meat to UW campuses. Beef farmer Kim Cates questioned this regulation at a College Food Project workshop in October, 2000. Cates asked why, since the State of Wisconsin has its own meat inspection process, State institutions would not honor the State’s own inspection, and would instead require the USDA inspection. She researched the regulations, and found that no such rule existed. UW schools were, in fact, allowed to buy meat packed at State-inspected facilities. This has opened the door for local meat producers. In April 2001 the Housing Food Service served a delicious dinner in the dining halls featuring organic and sustainably-raised beef from two farmer cooperatives. Local, organic hamburger is now featured daily in all campus dining halls. Without this project, who knows how long it would have been before this “perceived” barrier had been identified and resolved. Indeed, it is very likely that the University would still not be buying local meat.

Elsewhere, Beloit College has begun buying local and organic products on a routine basis. At Lawrence University, student demand is high but finding adequate farm suppliers has been a challenge, while at Edgewood College price and student demand are the main obstacles. A strong local buying effort has continued at Northland College but the future of this program is unclear with a change of administration that may result in local buying not being as aggressively pursued as in the past. The project’s varied success at other institutions speaks to the impact of regular and consistent communication with food service staff and the power of building strong relationships with collaborators. Although quite a few directors expressed strong—or at least some—interest in local, sustainable buying, where project staff did not work directly and consistently with the schools, food service directors reported little or no progress on local buying in the follow-up (2002) interviews.

Over 25 individual growers or grower groups (Organic Valley, Wisconsin Pasturelands, and Home Grown Wisconsin) have made initial or expanded sales to colleges and universities as a result of this project. Locally owned, and/or cooperative distributors (North Farm Cooperative, Alsum Produce), processors (Nature’s Bakery), and a grocery store (Magic Mill Natural Foods) have also marketed to institutions as a result of the project. An estimated $80,000 has been paid to local growers and local marketing cooperatives as a result of the special meals and events held at UW-Madison alone. The total dollar figure for all local buying (such as the items on the regular menu at UW-Madison) and the addition of purchases made at other institutions would push this figure well above $100,000.

Local, regional and national outreach efforts have continued and include: presentations and workshops for student organizers, food service administrators, and growers (a complete list of outreach events and activities will be included in the Project’s final report), a set of detailed web pages that highlight the College Food Project (, and the current development of three different information packets designed to serve three different client groups (student organizers, food service director/staff, and growers/suppliers). The College Food Project continues to have an impact nationally in addition to within Wisconsin: project staff and coordinators are contacted regularly to offer advice and assistance to farm to college program across the nation. By identifying challenges, solutions and opportunities, this project will help other researchers and organizers examine and develop local buying efforts elsewhere.

An unanticipated outcome of the College Food Project was the successful launch of a “sister” program (also with SARE funding) to develop local buying efforts in Madison, Wisconsin K-12 public schools. This project, known as the Wisconsin Home Grown Lunch Project is now in its third year.

Economic Analysis

One of the barriers often mentioned in the interviews with food service directors was cost. But as the director from Northland College explains, even in board-plan food service there are constant trade-offs between cheaper and more expensive foods on the menu. Every dining center director juggles prices of various foods to serve what students want without going over budget. At all the schools that are buying directly from farmers, dedicated dining center directors are proving that institutions can afford to buy locally-raised and organic foods.

At UW-Madison, food buying for the Housing Food Service is usually limited by contracts with broadline vendors. Sometimes, locally-grown and organic foods are actually cheaper than the prices in these contracts. One example is baking potatoes. All fresh produce comes to the Housing Food Service from Baraboo Sysco. This and all other UW exclusive contracts are on the Purchasing Department’s web page: Fresh whole baking potatoes cost $1.00 a pound under this exclusive contract. Locally-grown organic potatoes were bought “off-specification” (outside of an established contract), for the Housing Food Service’s Meat and Potatoes dinners on campus in April of 2001. The organic potatoes for the special meal cost less than the commercially-grown potatoes normally bought through the Sysco contract.

One of the reasons that local produce can be more expensive is the labor needed for washing, peeling, and chopping. In many modern food service kitchens, preparation work is minimal because broadline distributors bring frozen foods that are ready to cook and even fresh foods that are ready to serve. Says one food service director, “It really isn’t the price of the local carrots or potatoes, it is the labor to process them.” However, farm-direct organic foods are often cheaper than their pre-processed (peeled, sliced, frozen, etc.) conventionally-grown equivalents, so this can help make up for the price of the labor.

A related set of challenges exists in terms of processing and labor. Many food services no longer even have the capacity to wash, peel and chop fresh produce. Kitchens have been remodeled and down-sized and old equipment has been junked in favor of pre-processed products. In some cases, such as at UW, the food service struggles to hire enough labor and cannot find people willing and able to work in the kitchens. An analysis of food costs for one of the earliest meals at UW demonstrates that labor costs can drive up the total costs for local (unprocessed) products above existing menu prices (which are based on conventional, pre-processed products).

Item Raw food cost per serving Labor cost per serving Total cost per serving Menu price per serving Menu price – total cost
Buttered beats 0.6249 0.4925 1.1174 0.58 -0.5347
Squash 0.3849 0.9850 1.3699 0.58 -0.7899
Grilled potato wedges 0.5918 1.23 1.8218 0.74 -1.0818
Roast tenderloin 1.7700 0.4104 2.1804 .39 2.2096

This analysis also shows how some local and sustainable products may, in fact be cheaper than their conventional counterparts. The food service director was delighted with the lower-than-usual price for the tenderloin in the above chart…and even more pleased when he tasted it because it was of superior quality.

Institutions represent a small, but potentially large and growing market for local and sustainably raised food products. Each local meal at the University of Wisconsin injects $1,500 to $3,500 dollars into local farms and rural communities. Those may be relatively small numbers but they represent a strong start and tremendous potential. As demonstrated by the blue corn chips, sliced apples packaged with dips, and hamburger currently purchased by the UW-Madison, new foods introduced at special meals have the potential to become regular menu items. Regular menu items means regular sales and regular sales to a University the size of UW means significant income.

Perhaps the biggest impact this project has had is that food service personnel such as those at UW now understand the significance of buying locally. Before this project started, the food service was receiving requests for organic food. These requests were undoubtedly going to increase as more and more students arrived on campus having eaten and enjoyed organic foods at home (given the general rise of the organic marketplace). The food service was preparing to satisfy these requests for organic food but would very likely not made connections to local organic growers and suppliers, had not this project existed and helped educate them on the issues and helped them find local, organic products.

Farmer Adoption

As mentioned above, over 25 individual growers or grower groups have made initial or expanded sales to colleges and universities as a result of this project. Locally owned, and/or cooperative distributors, processors, and grocery stores have also marketed to institutions as a result of the project. Farmer adoption has not been greater because this kind of market (emphasizing direct-wholesale types of products, prices, and practices) is not the most advantageous fit for many local farms. Many of the smaller, direct-market oriented farms in Wisconsin are better suited for markets such as roadside stands, CSA, farmers markets, or restaurants. There currently do not seem to be as many farms of the appropriate scale and with the proclivity to go after institutional markets. Of course, part of the reason for this is that food services have grown used to pre-processed products, not heirloom tomatoes and bunched kale. That said, it is clear that the existence or development of market cooperatives or associations can help make this market accessible for smaller farms. The marketing cooperatives that helped supply the institutions in this project were uniformly eager to access this new market and one in particular has come to recognize the tremendous potential of institutional markets and is working to develop and expand product lines specifically for this market.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Publications (Print and Web)

Dishing up Local Food on Wisconsin Campuses. CIAS Research Brief no. 55. 2001.

The College Food Project: Colleges In Wisconsin Buying Foods From Local And Sustainable Farms. Janet Parker. Masters thesis. University of Wisconsin–Madison. 2002.

Three packets were developed to serve regular and ongoing inquires about farm-to-college programs. The three packets are targeted to student organizers, food service directors/staff and growers/suppliers.

College Food Project web site:

Publicity (partial list)

Penn, Michael. “Getting Fresh: Ever had an organic experience in a residence hall cafeteria?” On Wisconsin Alumni Magazine. Winter 2000. p.10.

Progressive Farmer editors. “Value-Added Market as Near as the Closest College,” News. 12/08/00. --

Tocetti, Cappy. “Marketing Your Products to Food Services.” Capital Press (a weekly farm paper published in Salem, Oregon)., 9/01/00.

Zenk, Peg. “Sending Their Carrots to College,” News. 12/30/00. --

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences press releases:

Wisconsin Colleges Pay Family Farmers a Fair Price for Quality Food

UW-Madison Residence Halls Will Serve a Locally Grown, Organic Dinner Oct. 10

Wisconsin State Journal article, Spring 2000
Wisconsin State Farmer article, Summer 2000
Growing for Market article, Fall 2000
Organic Broadcaster article, Fall 2000
Capital Times article, Fall 2000

Education and Outreach on Wisconsin campuses (partial list)

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1. ‘Appetite for Change’ lecture series, UW-Madison, February – April 2000
2. Staffed literature tables at regional/seasonal meals, one each semester, Fall 1999 through Spring 2002.
3. Periodic meetings with the Food Service director and staff.

Beloit College

1. Provided guest lecture in a science class for pre-service teachers on issues in food systems and how the College Food Projects addresses some of these concerns 11/01
2. “Stone Soup” activity; Created a hands-on activity in the main dining hall for student group and involving food service director and cooking staff. We did a short food chain analysis with items brought by students for the vegetable soup. Small groups presented to the larger group about their food item. Everyone prepared the soup together in the kitchen. While eating the soup we facilitated discussion between the students and the food service director regarding the possibilities of increasing local and organic foods in their regular menu offerings. 11/01
3. Planned and facilitated meeting between food service director, head chef and head of catering and three interested organic growers local to Beloit College, including the Coordinator of Homegrown Wisconsin. Discussions focused around seasonality, price, delivery, etc. Food service director agreed to begin increased local/organic purchasing spring with an even greater focus on the next fall, when he planned to stage more educational events for students and college administration.
4. Planned an educational event with the food service director and the student food committee to raise awareness on campus about local and organic products and took part in the event a week later. Students handed out flyers and samples of organic foods to their peers for tasting. The CFP put up a display and the staff person, the student intern and a local organic farmer talked with students as they came in to the dining hall, answered questions and handed out educational materials. 4/02
5. Met with student environmental group to discuss tips for student organization of Farm-to-College efforts 4/02
6. Provided supplier contacts and menu suggestions to student intern planning a local, organic meal for the BioQUEST Conference catered by the College. (6/02)

Edgewood College

1. Presented to a biology class on issues in Food systems and how the CFP ( Farm –to-College) addresses some of these concerns.
2. Acted as resource for this same class to develop a class project around the issues of increasing use of local and sustainably raised products by the college. The class chose to explore the issues of organic dairy production in contrast to conventional dairies here in Wisconsin. They also planned and provided a “local, sustainable” lunch for faculty.

Lawrence University

1. Participated in planning a 2- day retreat with a Lawrence environmental student group (EarthFire) interested in focusing their resources and energies on creating change (local, organic) in the campus food service. CFP staff and intern attended the retreat and presented on related issues and the successes and challenges of the CFP. Staff helped to facilitate the discussions and answer questions for the reminder of the retreat.

Outreach to WI campus food service directors

A packet of information on the College Food Project and suggested resources was sent to all Wisconsin campus food service directors that originally been contacted by the CFP. (3/02). The packet was followed by calls to each director with a short interview.

Conference and Workshop Presentations
1. Local Foods for Institutions Workshop, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, September 2000.
2. Presentation at Conference of the National Association of College and University Food Services, Lawrence University, March 2001.
3. 1st Annual Farm - to- Cafeteria Conference by the CFSC; Seattle, WA (10/02) Presentation by the UW- Madison Housing Assistant Food Service Director and head of purchasing Workshop title: “The Nuts and Bolts of Organizing Farm-to-College Projects.”
4. Urban Rural Conference; East Troy, WI (11/02) – presented on the findings of the College Food Project.
5. High School Environmental Education Conference; UW-Stevens Point (12/02) – presented on farm-to-school and farm-to-college, giving environmental context for such projects and how motivated students can be instrumental in making projects happen in their high schools or on their college campuses.
6. “The college food service market: a good fit for your business?” 2002 Specialty Foods Marketing Conference, Algoma, WI 2002
7. “Something to Cheer About: Local Foods at UW-Madison,” Cornell Farm to Cafeteria Conference, 2001
8. “Direct Marketing to Colleges and Universities,” presented at: Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, 2001; Value Added Conference, 2001; MFAI Urban-Rural Conference, 2000
9. Local and Organic Foods at Colleges and Universities, National Association of College and University Food Services Conference, Notre Dame, 2002.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

There are many areas that might benefit from further study and effort. The following are those that this project has identified as most significant:


More local buying on the part of institutional food services would be possible if processed products were available. In most cases, food service directors express an interest in cut and washed vegetables (shredded lettuce, diced carrots, broccoli florets, etc.) but other processed products are also in demand (such as the UW director’s need for an organic hamburger bun and sliced organic cheese). Project organizers have spoken with a local processor (FreshCuts in Milwaukee) and local growers about accessing or developing processing infrastructure but it is as yet unclear how best to meet this demand while satisfying grower needs for adequate profits. Feasibility studies of small, simple food processing units might help determine if a marketing cooperative like Home Grown Wisconsin or Organic Valley could profitably move into vegetable processing. (There is also a profound need for expanded meat processing in Wisconsin that would make it easier for meat producers to make and sell their products.) The Wisconsin Home Grown Lunch project is taking a more aggressive and complete look at processing issue because it is an even bigger issue for K-12 schools.

Consumer Education

UW foodservice personnel themselves have identified this as a key issue. While some (vocal) students do care about where their food comes from and how it is produced, most do not. If ongoing funding was available for a student intern to work with the food service, the food service director has indicated that educating students would be a top priority. How best to educate students is an ongoing challenge. This project observed that, like in the advertising industry, repetition helps. It is far better to have students and farmers at educational tables rather than merely having literature tables. It also may help to have other activities and events happening around campus such as courses or lectures on sustainable agriculture and food systems. Having farm-to-school programs in elementary schools is also likely to have a strong impact. If students grow up eating in elementary school cafeterias that feature local and sustainable products, they hopefully will come to expect that during their college experience as well. This is another strong argument for efforts like the Wisconsin Home Grown Lunch project. Because so many of the current student requests for local and sustainable/organic food comes from vegetarians and vegans it may be necessary to “mobilize the meat-eaters” so that they make requests for local/sustainable meat products from their food service. Current concerns about meat safety such as Mad Cow may provide some impetus.

Food Service Education

In addition to consumers needing to better understand the impacts of their food choices, food service directors and staff need to be made more aware of the positive outcomes of local buying. They also need help finding local supplies because the food service industry has become so dominated by large distributors. In some cases, education that dispels the myth that produce from small, local farms is somehow unsafe or more risky may be needed. Working with food service directors and tapping into their personal interest in “homegrown” food is very important given the link between their enthusiasm for local, sustainable food and their willingness to be flexible and proactive in their purchasing decisions for their institution.

Marketing and Distribution Infrastructure

The point about processing (above) could perhaps be included here but there are clear advantages to having convenient and efficient mechanisms and systems for getting product ordered and delivered to institutions. Farmer owned marketing cooperatives are a great way to serve the institutional market but there may be a role for private distribution companies to help link local farms and colleges, universities, hospitals, etc.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.