Creating sustainable food purchasing guidelines in the Northeast

Project Overview

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2007: $9,831.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Northeast
State: Connecticut
Project Leader:
Joshua Viertel
Yale Sustainable Food Project


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: youth education
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    Proposal abstract:

    In recent years, students at universities across the country have begun asking for dining hall food with a mission: food that builds the health of the land, the rural communities growing it, and the people eating it. Many universities, colleges, and schools have begun to respond positively to this demand. In the past four years, Yale University, through the Yale Sustainable Food Project, has worked to make its Dining Services more sustainable. The university has committed $1.2 million towards the extra cost associated with the purchase of sustainable food each year, and combined with its regular food budget, Yale University Dining Services has the potential to pump more than $3 million into the local agricultural economy every year. Yet our experience over the last four years has made us reckon with the learning curve that institutions face as they enter this new market. Institutional dining purchasers, chefs, and managers have been trained to value volume purchasing, rebates, and low prices; they have little or no background in sustainable agriculture, or local agricultural economies. Without this expertise, many institutional efforts flounder or stall. Most purchasers and chefs have not thought about sustainability before; and they don’t know what constitutes a sustainable agricultural practice. In this vacuum, corporate organic labels (which do little to support vibrant rural economies) look very appealing. Each dollar spent on California organic represents money that could—and should—have been infused into the rural communities in our region. Lack of clarity in purchasing standards and lack of a detailed, written summation of these standards in a usable form has meant that the positive potential impact of purchasing dollars on the Northeast’s rural communities is not realized. Our experience in beginning to transition Yale’s dining halls, and in fielding questions for scores of other institutions, has convinced us that institutions need a set of purchasing standards, written in a format that will help them to make good decisions. Farmers have underscored this need to us as well: farmers emphasize the importance of educating institutions so that they know what constitutes sustainable practices and what questions to ask. They note that institutional purchasers are distracted by labels: purchasers don not ask about the practices behind “ecological,” or that they dismiss food from across the state line as “not local,” even if it has only traveled a short distance. While there are lots of resources available on the internet for students at schools to use in generating political will and support for sustainable food programs, there are no resources to our knowledge that aid schools in the Northeast in making purchasing decisions. That is, when a school decides to take the initial step towards sourcing food sustainably, there is no “consumer guide” to tell them which criteria are important for each product as they attempt to identify responsible producers. While institutions including Yale have developed purchasing priorities, sustainability issues as they relate to agricultural practices and production are complex— more complex than asking, “Is it organic?” (For a complete list of Yale’s purchasing guidelines, developed by Yale undergraduates, Yale University Dining Services and the Sustainable Food Project, see Appendix A). Universities across the country, in addition to the Connecticut Council of Independent Colleges and the New York State Council of Independent Colleges, have looked to Yale for sustainable purchasing guidelines . There is a clear need to better articulate our own standards, to educate institutional food purchasers and chefs, and to help students understand how and why we make our purchasing decisions. This will help us, other universities, and even students (as citizens, leaders, and parents), to support a sound local agricultural economy. We believe the most effective and efficient way to accomplish this is through developing a comprehensive “sustainable food purchasing guide.”

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Our project aims to develop purchasing guidelines for schools and other institutions wishing to procure local, sustainable food—an educational tool to “grease the wheels” and assist institutions in responsible, local purchasing. These guidelines would serve to help streamline and catalyze purchasing of sustainable food at Yale as well as at other institutions. Moreover, the guidelines would serve as an educational tool to students at schools and universities. These students will grow up to make decisions about food as businesspeople, policymakers, or simply as parents, and we have the opportunity to educate them about what it means to support sound, local agriculture.

    We will hire someone to research standards of sustainable production for fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat, and develop a document outlining these standards. This document would be used at Yale, and would be shared with and used by food purchasers and chefs at institutions in the Northeast, particularly other schools and universities. By providing other institutions with these purchasing guidelines, we will be helping them channel their food dollars into local, sustainable agricultural economies. Developing the document will be a collaborative process: we will work directly with farmers to shape the standards.

    These purchasing guidelines will be a kind of “Seafood Watch Guide” for vegetables, fruit, dairy, and meat in the Northeast . The document we develop will identify the key production concerns for each product in our region, briefly describe the ideal agricultural production practice, and then offer a sliding scale for less-sustainable practices. It will offer a quick list of questions to ask growers in order to evaluate their production. Further, it will offer a quick executive summary for what to look for, by product.

    Some products are complex. For example, it is not difficult to find a Northeastern apple grower who uses Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices. However, anyone who has worked with apple growers knows that there is a great deal of variance in their pest management strategies, and a corresponding variance in the amount they spray. It is difficult for a purchaser to hone in on these differences in order to favor more sustainable producers. The document we develop would give the purchaser the tools necessary to ask the appropriate questions in order to do so. He might ask two growers, “In a typical year, how many times do you spray Imidan?” One might answer “twice, maybe four times in a bad year.” Another might answer, “only ten times.” The purchaser would then be able to favor the low-spray grower. Although apple production is particularly complex, a similar (though less complex) variability exists in the production for nearly all other products. For example, the difference between organic, grass-fed, and grass-fed/grain-finished meats is relatively simple. With a few quick questions, a purchaser could make a good decision. However, more often than not, purchasers are not aware of the differences, and do not know which questions to ask.

    At present, employees of the Yale Sustainable Food Project help to make these evaluations, but their capacity to do so is limited, and their evaluation criterion is not codified. Purchasers will be able to employ this guide to aid in their purchasing decisions, and institutions that do not have employees who are able to make these evaluations will be better equipped to do so, and therefore, channel their food dollars towards the local economy.

    Yale is uniquely positioned to make a huge positive impact in this arena. The Yale Sustainable Food Project began in 2001, and schools starting similar programs across the nation, and particularly in the Northeast, look to Yale as a model. We field scores of inquiries from schools, universities, non-governmental organizations, and policymakers each year. In 2005, twelve colleges visited the Yale Sustainable Food Project to learn about the program. In 2003, nineteen colleges and high schools from the region attended the Project’s first conferences. And, as noted, the Connecticut Council of Independent Colleges and the New York State Council of Independent Colleges have looked to Yale for sustainable purchasing guidelines. We have built a network of friends and allies in the sustainable food and agriculture movement, and we will use this network to disseminate the purchasing guide we develop with the funds from this grant.

    In addition to assisting institutions in purchasing locally and sustainably, the guide would serve as a tool to help farmers understand what agricultural practices are being sought. By clearly delineating what institutions are looking for from a production methods standpoint, the guide would be useful to farmers looking to market their products to such institutions.

    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.