Institutional Markets for Sustainable Agriculture Products

2002 Annual 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

Institutional Markets for Sustainable Agriculture Products


The College Food Project seeks to understand the opportunities and barriers to marketing 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 has generated or increased local buying at six institutions and helped more than 20 growers sell to institutions.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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.


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

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). The results of these interviews were reported in the project's 2000 annual report. In the third year of the project, these 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. A specific focus of this second round of interviews was to probe food service directors further about the barriers and perceived barriers to purchasing local/sustainable agricultural products by campus food services. Initial results of these conversations include the following:

Time. The time commitment involved to look into and research local growers and suppliers and work with them to meet the various needs of food service is prohibitive and is not part of the regular responsibilities of staff.
Possible solutions:
1. Utilize a student intern to serve as a "forager" for local farm products.
2. Hold informational workshop for growers to learn about the specifics of working with and providing product to the food service.

Size. Many of the larger universities (and some small too) felt that the small scale of most of the local growers and even local vendors would never be able meet their needs; also, they feel pressure to buy in large volume to achieve price breaks.
Possible solutions: Identify the larger distributors of local products and buy through them, encourage local growers to sell through local distributor or organize among themselves 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 organics 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 prohibitie 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 a 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 product 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, etc. 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.
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 co-op or other organized group to bring individual expense down may offer a simple solution.

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, 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.

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 the 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.'"

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

Food distributors and contractors play large and increasingly prevalent roles in the functioning of contemporary college and university food services. A significant part of the proposed research was to develop a better understanding of such enterprises in order to evaluate the relative opportunities and barriers they represent for connecting institutions with local sustainable agriculture. Another aspect of this objective was to evaluate the relative merits of marketing local, sustainable products through these existing distributors and contractors OR for farmers or food processors to become approved vendors themselves, either independently or cooperatively.

As was reported in 2000, it became clear very early in the project that, for the majority of growers the project organizers had engaged, marketing directly to institutions was preferable and the only way to profitably engage institutional markets. However, it was also true that the presence of several marketing cooperatives in Wisconsin facilitated increased local buying to a degree that was unlikely if farmers were only acting independently. Part of the reason that the growers involved in the College Food Project preferred direct marketing was the fact that most were smaller-scale, organic farms and were accustomed to receiving a premium price for the products. For "conventional" and somewhat larger-scaled operations, working with a local distributor may be very appealing and may help build connections to more of the contracted food service operations that would prefer dealing with a wholesaler rather than individual farms.

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.

In the first two years of the project, the majority of direct and regular contact was with the project coordinators' home institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW). Not surprisingly, this was where the project had its most significant impact given the benefits of proximity, including direct contact and relationships with both food service administrators and local growers. In 2002, steps were taken to "institutionalize" local buying by creating an undergraduate internship position. This intern (the Farm to Campus Food Liaison) worked directly with campus food services to bring Wisconsin grown and sustainably grown foods to campus dining halls, convenience stores, and catered events. The intern helped contact farmers to find out what foods are available, worked with food service staff to get these foods on the menu, publicize these efforts, and educated students and catering customers about sustainable agriculture and local food systems. The internship was jointly sponsored and funded by the College Food Project, University Housing, and Wisconsin Union Catering.

In year three of the project (2002), an effort was made to take some of the lessons and successes at (UW) and work more closely with several other institutions to start or increase local buying efforts. These included Beloit College, Edgewood College and Lawrence University.

Interactions with these institutions involved: (1) giving guest lectures and presentations, (2) creating a "Stone Soup" activity (a hands-on activity for a student group and involving food service director and cooking staff. First, a short "food chain analysis" was presented using 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. (3) coordinating and facilitating meetings between food service directors, head chefs, and interested growers, (4) participating in educational events to raise student awareness about local and organic products, (5) meeting with student environmental groups to discuss their potential role in farm-to-college efforts, (6) provided supplier contacts and menu suggestions, (7) serving as resource for students in engaged in class projects focusing on the increased use of local and sustainably raised products by their college, and (8) participating in a two-day retreat with Earthfire, a Lawrence University environmental student group interested in focusing their resources and energies on creating change (local, organic) in the campus food service.

In addition to focused outreach to these three campuses, a farm-to-college resource packet was sent to all the food service directors that had been originally contacted by the College Food Project.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

At the campus level, the University of Wisconsin has emerged as a national leader in local and organic food buying. They continue to offer special local and organic meals twice each semester and have also begun putting local, sustainable items on the regular menu (including apples, potatoes, blue corn chips, and hamburgers). The UW campus catering service has prepared an organic, local, seasonal menu option for its customers. Elsewhere, Beloit College has begun buying local and organic products on a routine basis. At Lawrence University, student demand and 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.

At least 20 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 $50,000-60,000 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, including presentations and workshops for student organizers, food service administrators, and growers (a complete list of outreach events and activities will be included in the Projects 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 tapped regularly to offer advice and assistance to farm to college program across the nation.