Twenty years ago, Vermont restaurants began marketing their commitment to source local and fresh ingredients under the brand of the newly-minted Vermont Fresh Network. In many ways, this network brand was outside the realm of typical marketing strategies, largely because the widespread consumer hunt for local food was barely on the horizon. Ahead of its time on the local food front, Vermont Fresh Network’s strongest emphasis, as prominently displayed in its name, was the other key word: ‘fresh’.
All good things are associated with ‘fresh’.
Crisp, ripe, just picked/baked/chopped, high quality, good tasting. Years before twelve-year-olds began asking their waiter where the roasted chicken on the menu came from, Vermont chefs and restauranteurs were looking to their trusted Vermont farmer neighbors to provide the freshest and highest quality ingredients.
Today, both in Vermont and around the country, institutions are doing the same thing. “It has taken longer for our local food system to become robust enough to allow institutional kitchens to express their purchasing muscle within the system,” explains Meghan Sheridan, Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network. “As Vermont’s food system continues to grow in size and diversity, it is ever more possible for institutional kitchens to source local and regional products.”
Vermont institutions are now qualifying to join the Vermont Fresh Network. Four of
Sodexo’s Vermont campuses are Network members: University of Vermont, St. Michael’s College, Norwich University, and Champlain College. In addition to membership, St. Michael’s, Norwich, and UVM join 51 other restaurants and a few institutions in receiving the recognition of Gold Barn Honorees, an award recognizing chefs who are exceptional partners with Vermont farmers. Explore the list of Vermont Fresh Network members and our fellow Gold Barn Honorees here.
As demand for local and sustainable food in cafeterias continues to increase, “culinary excellence is much more of an expectation, cooking is an art and [today’s college student] appreciates a chef’s passion for their trade,” shares Melissa Jordan, Sodexo’s Vice President for Strategic Alliances. “The days of preparing large masses of commercially purchased ingredients in the back kitchen, bringing it out front and ‘parking it under heat lamps’ is not going to fly with today’s college student,” says Jordan.
The role of institutional chefs has become widely recognized and revered. In a November 2015 Burlington Free Press article, the spotlight was on UVM Executive Chef Kate Hays. “The progress we have made [in the] two and half years I’ve been there in terms of local food has been amazing,” Hays reflects on her experience in shifting from running restaurants to institutional kitchens. Currently, UVM is in the process of opening a new dining hall that doubles as an educational center for sustainable and healthy food, and forging new partnerships with local producers. “[We’re] really breaking all expectations,” says Hays. Read the full interview here.
Serving thousands of meals per day throughout the year to diverse communities, institutional markets are seen by many in the food system world as the holy grail of local market opportunities. While we cannot overlook the big questions still looming on the horizon, from institutional market viability for local businesses to optimizing food access for economically-challenged populations, we enjoy pausing for a moment to reflect on this evolution in institutional culinary trends. From statewide recognition of our chefs for their culinary prowess to receiving best in class awards for volume of local purchasing, we are proud of our engagement and responsiveness to the Vermont community’s demand for culinary excellence in serving fresh, high quality, local food to our campus communities.
With this, we roll up our sleeves, dust off our aprons, and get back to work.