Institutional Markets for Sustainable Agriculture Products
Local food systems in the Upper Midwest are expanding with the emergence of community gardens and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and through direct marketing to venues such as farmers markets, restaurants, co-ops and natural food stores. One generally overlooked part of these emerging local food systems is college and university food services. As institutions with direct and strong ties to their local and regional communities – especially state-run colleges and land grant universities – such schools offer possibilities to support local farmers and highlight regional foods in their cafeterias, grills and catering services. In addition to offering short-term markets, colleges and universities are important institutions for educating future consumers and leaders about the range of values associated with local, sustainable food production.
At present, relatively small amounts of locally produced food are currently served in these institutions. The primary objectives of this project, therefore, will to be explore (and stimulate) demand in college and university food services for local and regional sustainable agriculture products and to provide sustainable agriculture producers with research-based information regarding opportunities, barriers and strategies for marketing to the college and university food service sector.
First, food service directors at all 34 Wisconsin colleges and universities were interviewed 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. Concurrent to these activities, considerable time was put into working directly with the project's home food service operation at UW_Madison to locate local suppliers, help plan and publicize local meals, and educate students (consumers). Finally, publicity, networking, and workshops have (and will continue) to inform growers, food service directors, and students about the project and its findings.
Food service director interviews resulted in a database 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 has become a useful resource in outreach efforts to both growers and other food services. Findings confirm that barriers such as liability issues, convenience, cost, approved vendor restrictions, and lack of consumer (student) demand do exist. However, where there is committed food service personnel and student demand, barriers can be overcome. Self_run food services appear to have more flexibility to buy from local producers than contracted food services.
Contacts with distributors indicate that for institutional markets to develop there needs to be sufficient (often new) infrastructure in place. Existing wholesale distributors catering to the food service market do not have the commitment to source from local, sustainable producers. Nor is there room in this distribution channel for growers to realize the profit they need and that can be achieved through more direct marketing. Marketing co-ops and other joint marketing efforts make local buying more convenient for both buyers and farmers. Food buyers prefer fewer calls to order product and consolidated billing. Growers benefit from joint marketing structures because they remove the burden of marketing, delivery, invoicing, and other logistics from their shoulders.
Outreach and publicity has generated significant interest on the part of growers and has also resulted in increased interest and local food buying at other institutions. By working with the UW-Madison food service staff to locate suppliers, plan and publicize local meals, and educate students, a significant amount of momentum has been achieved. This seems to be having an impact at other institutions as well.