How Your Dining Hall Can Buy Local

Sustainable cafeterias are next to impossible, right? Well, not if you address these 8 common impediments.


Helene York

For all that's written about the benefits of seasonal, fresh food, the challenges faced by institutions purchasing local food are less well-known. How hard could it be to get more fresh produce on school menus? As the point person for approving Bon Appétit Management Company's "Farm to Fork" vendors—a program since 1999 to have 20 percent of the food in all of our kitchens be "truly local" —I am regularly asked by food advocates about the biggest barriers for "farm to institution" sales. Whether they want to see small farmers gain access to expanded markets or feed students more fresh produce, many are surprised by my take on the most significant obstacles:

People often assume that cost is the major factor. It isn't, at least for fresh produce, which is generally a relatively small percentage of total costs in most commercial kitchens. Local meat and seafood, however, can be a lot more expensive than what's available from other sources.

The issues with meat and seafood, however, have more to do with handling than cost. Industrial meat and seafood are standardized, with hundreds of SKUs denoting skin on/off, different cuts and portion sizes, bone-in/out, pre-breaded or marinated, frozen/fresh, etc. Most local ranchers offer only fresh meat and sometimes whole birds or sides of beef. It takes butchering skills to carve up what local ranchers sell. If a chef already buys fresh ingredients and makes food from scratch, this isn't a problem. Several Bon Appétit chefs carve up whole cattle, but storage space as well as knife skills are necessary. Neither is the norm in many institutional kitchens. Many school districts have no chefs, no knives, no storage, and no labor to do more than open cans and pour.

Small quantities, infrequently delivered, can be a big impediment. Local farmers tend to supply smaller volumes than produce companies (who can deliver comingled products from many suppliers). For large colleges, produce trucks frequently make six deliveries per week. Many farmers drop off supplies once per week. Because their primary work is farming, rather than making deliveries, farmers' drop-off times tend to vary. That's okay for potatoes. It's not okay for ripe strawberries that might last one day and may not make it in time to be used.

Very few small farmers create their own value-added products. While jams and other preparations bring greater income to farmers, they also trigger another level of quality assurance/health inspections that adds cost and complexity that many farmers won't entertain. We are helping farmers set up micro-processing in Ohio to individually quick freeze corn and peas for soups later in the year, but the mechanism has taken years to implement.

One of the biggest barriers to larger-scale purchasing of local food is the lack of a one-stop ordering system. Chefs who prepare hundreds of meals a day need to be able to go online, order what they need, and get it the next day (preferably from as few delivery trucks lining up on the dock as possible). Fortunately, several cooperative ventures are being piloted that are learning from the less-successful efforts of the past.

Recently I've heard a new concern among chefs: the lack of available products in some markets. Local food is hot, and many chefs are chasing a static supply. One New England chef complained to me recently that a chicken producer bought birds from the Midwest to supplement his own flock and marketed it as local chicken.

School schedules are an ironic obstacle. They reflect our pastoral legacy, designed to allow students to work the fields in summer, but supplies of local produce don't last through the fall semester in many regions. If local food must be fresh food, the seasons themselves limit institutions' ability to purchase local food.

Eventually, these barriers are all surmountable—except for one. An established interest in local food is nothing if the institutional food service model can't accommodate it. Predicated on achieving ever-lower food costs, most institutional kitchens use recipes developed by a central corporate source. Menus are distributed to cooks for a two-week cycle, and deviations aren't tolerated. Food is rarely prepped on-site (unless you count mixes). What a manager buys is reflected in carefully-monitored purchasing reports. It takes an uncommon approach—where executive chefs create their own recipes, soup stocks, and cook from scratch—to integrate truly local food, whether it's five boxes of potatoes or $30 of herbs from the campus garden. Creative delivery and ordering infrastructure schemes won't perceptibly promote "farm to institution" programs without a commitment to preparing good food in the first place.