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.
Exciting news from University of Vermont: the 5th signatory in the country to the Real Food Challenge, a commitment to achieve 20% Real Food purchasing by 2020, released this past week that they are currently at 19% Real – and it’s only 2016!
The Real Food Challenge is one way UVM Dining supports UVM Food Systems Initiative’s aim to “establish itself as a global leader in food systems education, research and collaboration, building on decades of food systems leadership” by 2020. Follow the UVM Dining Blog or @uvmdining on Instagram to stay in the know on UVM Dining’s other food systems work.
Congratulations to the members of UVM’s Real Food Challenge Working Group, past and present, as they continue build new benchmarks for campus dining.
Link to story on UVM Food Feed here, or read story pasted below.
By Alison Nihart
June 16, 2016
The University of Vermont is on track to surpass its current goal of purchasing 20 percent local, sustainable, fair, and humane food. In the 2015-2016 school year, 19 percent of the food purchased by UVM Dining qualified as “real,” according to the Real Food Challenge, indicating that the institution is likely to exceed 20 percent Real Food by 2020, the current target date.
The Real Food Challenge is a nonprofit organization that supports a national, student-led movement to shift 20 percent of existing university food budgets (equivalent to approximately $1 billion) from conventional agricultural products to local, ecologically sound, fair and humane products by 2020.
“Growing numbers of students across the country are concerned about how their food is produced — and how it affects farmers, fishers, and workers — and the Real Food Challenge is a response to that concern,” says Anim Steel, executive director of the Real Food Challenge. The motivation for the Real Food Campus Commitment is to empower students to hold their universities accountable for responsible purchasing decisions.
UVM responded to student interest and signed the commitment in 2012, pledging to purchase 20 percent Real Food by 2020. UVM was the fifth institution to do so and 32 campuses have signed since. Student interns work with UVM Dining to audit purchases at dining venues across campus and submit the data to the Real Food Calculator, an online tool that calculates a university’s percentage. Those associated with the effort at UVM expressed excitement that the changes made over the past four years have brought UVM so close to the 20 percent target so quickly.
To qualify as real, products must meet specific criteria in the categories of local, ecologically sound, fair or humane. Local products must be sourced from within 250 miles of campus. Popular local products include apples from Champlain Orchards and maple syrup from UVM’s own Proctor Maple Research Center. The ecologically sound category includes organic products and seafood that is sustainably sourced. All of the granola, maple syrup, tofu and most fish on campus qualify as ecologically sound. The fair category includes products with certifications indicating that farm workers involved are paid and treated well. Fair Trade coffee and tea are the standard on campus, and UVM is one of few colleges with a Fair Trade banana program. Lastly, there are many qualifying certifications for humane that ensure animals are well treated. Certified Humane (cage-free) eggs make up the highest portion of UVM’s humane category.
UVM Dining serves about 13,000 meals daily and Melissa Zelazny, resident district manager, understands the opportunity each of those meals presents. “We are proud to be creating dining experiences that are better for the planet, healthier for our students and support our local community.” Zelazny is working with others in the UVM food systems community to build a culture that will help students carry these values with them after graduation.
UVM Dining’s demonstrable progress in increasing Real Food purchasing reflects the passion and values at UVM for holistic food systems education and practice. Although the 20 percent goal is within sight, Gina Clithero, student co-chair of the UVM Real Food Working Group (a multi-stakeholder group of students, faculty, administrators and UVM Dining staff), says the work is far from done. “The working group will continue leveraging UVM’s purchasing power to create a sustainable, ethical food system, beyond 20 percent!”
To learn more, visit uvm.edu/realfood.
-Alison Nihart is assistant to the UVM Food Systems Initiative.
We are excited to share an article written by one of the two inaugural UVM Dining Fellows, Hailey Grohman. The UVM Dining Fellowship was created in the creative and collaborative process between the University of Vermont and Sodexo in the innovative dining contract launched last year.
We appreciate Hailey’s perspective on the incredible complexity behind the decisions made every day at UVM – and all institutions – to “[translate] the dietary needs, health choices, and value preferences of 10,000 people into three meals a day while keeping costs down.”
Click HERE to read the full article.
Complex, wicked problems are dynamic [and] require generative responses – learning, innovation, and adaptation over long periods of time.
– Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, John Cleveland
Connecting to Change the World
Lynn Jennings, one of the best female American runners of all time, posts up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom for a few months of the year as a running camp director. When asked why even some of the most committed, self-motivated runners seek out her camp year after year, her answer is simple: “Because we all get lazy.” We all need a jolt, a reminder of what all our training, day to day, is amounting to.
In the first meeting of Farm to Institution New England’s (FINE) Network Advisory Council this past winter, Executive Director Peter Allison instructed us Advisory Council members to be on the lookout in our mail for a book. Sure enough, a few days later – signed, sealed, and delivered – it arrived: Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact.
I must admit, before I began reading, I was feeling comfortable in my understanding of the language, function, and importance of networks. All to quickly, I realized that like Lynn’s runners, I was in need of a boot camp jolt in my network training. So I kept reading.
Taken from the book, here are eight insights I will pass along so that we all keep our pencils sharp in the intentional act of building and participating in networks.
- Know the Network Difference. Networks have unique capabilities for achieving social impact that distinguish them from other forms of social organizing, and generative social-impact networks are particularly suited for addressing complex problems
- Design Thoughtfully. Social-impact networks can be thoughtfully designed from the start; you don’t have to fly blind.
- Connect, Connect, Connect. The foundation of generative social-impact networks is the connectivity of its members to each other, which can be cultivated by network weavers.
- Anticipate a Network’s Evolution. A generative network’s capabilities, complexity, and potential for impact increase as the connectivity of its members deepens and the structure of their connectivity evolves.
- Enable and Adapt. The growth and development of established social-impact networks depend on managing a set of inevitable challenges.
- Assess to Improve. Monitoring and assessing a social-impact network’s condition and performance is the basis for improving its impact.
- Revisit Design. Making an existing network more generative, with more engaged members and impact, requires resetting of key design decisions to boost members’ connectivity.
- Be Network-Centric. In addition to skills and knowledge, network builders hold a distinct net-centric point of view with its own rules.
Following the lessons and insights from the pages in his library, Peter and his team at Farm to Institution New England announced the launch of the New England Farm and Sea to Campus Network earlier this week.
We are proud to be a member of this new network – follow the link above to join us in being part of the learning, innovation, and adaptation needed in building a sustainable New England food system.
On this Earth Day as we meditate on how we can all be better stewards of our planet, Louise Calderwood, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture for the State of Vermont, offers a few thoughts on a key ingredient in our sustainable food system – manure.
Manure application on agricultural fields requires a great deal of responsible management in order to keep our soils healthy and productive and our water quality high.
Photo credit: Fairmont Farms
The signs of spring are here; singing birds, green grass, bright sun and….manure! Manure? That doesn’t fit this list of welcome springtime arrivals- or does it? Why do farmers spread the sloppy liquid? Do Vermont farmers have to comply with environmental laws for manure applications? How do they keep manure from polluting our waterways?
Manure is a valuable resource for farmers. Nutrients in the form of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium contained in manure are essential to grow forage crops and vegetables. Dairy and livestock farmers use manure from their animals to boost forage production while some vegetable producers import manure to meet the needs of their crops.
All farmers are required by state and federal law to use manure according to the nutrient needs of the crops and fields where they spread it. Larger farms have to maintain plans and records to prove to state regulators they are using the manure appropriately and minimizing the impact on water quality. In the near future, smaller farms will need to self-certify they are meeting the same standards to protect water quality.
Manure pollutes water if it runs off farm fields and into rivers and streams. Phosphorus carried in the manure causes algal growth that robs the water of oxygen needed for aquatic life and can lead to blooms of toxin producing cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae.
In addition to manure management farmers also protect water quality by managing liquids released from stored feed and maintaining buffers of grass with no manure or fertilizer application between fields and water ways. Farmers test the chemical make-up of the manure and soil to be sure the right amount of manure is spread on each field.
One theme is constant across all farms: manure is money and farmers don’t waste it. Responsible farmers recognize their role in protecting water quality and appropriate manure management.
Louise H. Calderwood, provides government relations services, grant writing, development and executive director services to a number of agricultural organizations and producers throughout the Northeast. She also serves as adjunct faculty teaching animal science, whole farm planning, US agricultural policy, and farm business management at Sterling College in Craftsbury, VT. Calderwood served as Vermont’s deputy secretary of agriculture from 1998 to 2006 and as a regional dairy specialist with UVM Extension, specializing in dairy reproduction, from 1988 to 1998. Calderwood is a graduate of UVM (BS-Dairy Science), Virginia Tech (MS-Dairy Science), and conducted graduate research in animal physiology at North Carolina State University and UVM. She is a partner with her husband, Randi, in the family’s sugaring operation. She serves on the boards of the Vermont Community Loan Fund, and the North Country Investment Corporation.
(Photo credit: Karen Guile, Peaslee’s Potatoes)
A central theme in a conversation about a large wholesale buyer, like Sodexo, purchasing more local food is how a small farm can “scale-up” to meet the demand of this market. Vermont First has offered and participated in forums that focus on what it means for a farm to sell to the scale of a market like Sodexo in terms of product quality, food safety, consistency of volume, and the like. What we do not often discuss is what “scaling-up” means from the perspective of farm profitability and viability, and the value of multiple business models that help bring local products to market.
Mark Cannella, from UVM Extension, addresses this issue in his article, “Building Brands in a Small Farm Food System.” A very important and timely read.
Building Brands in a Small Farm Food System
February 10 , 2016
Small farms in Vermont contribute tremendous value to our evolving food system by being nimble enough to respond to shifting consumer demand quickly. Small farms have pioneered niche products, such as multi-variety mesclun mixes and hybrid CSA memberships. They are engaged in cutting-edge production practices, such as air-cooled poultry processing, as well as land practices that benefit our water, air, and wildlife. Owners of small farms are easily accessible to customers through farmers’ markets and events, allowing them to tell (and sell) their story as individuals, families, and responsible stewards of the land.
By 2016, however, many of Vermont’s direct-to-consumer markets or direct wholesale markets (to restaurants and grocers), which have been the bread and butter for our small farms, have gotten very competitive. Since 2012, Vermont Farm and Forest Viability business planners have observed numerous farms pulling out of farmers’ markets or direct accounts due to lackluster sales. These farms are now seeking broader markets.
Why not encourage these small farms to simply scale up? To grow larger and reach an economy of scale that could increase profits? Many have tried but it turns out to be not so easy. Expanding a farm business almost always requires the recruitment, management, and retention of employees, which requires setting up formal payroll practices, absorbing costs to provide worker benefits, and institutionalizing specific farm management practices for others to follow. This requires new skill sets. Scaling up also leads to a customer service focus that many farmers are not interested in fulfilling. This does not mean that small farmers aren’t friendly and courteous to talk to—many excel at that. But an expanding farm must engage with all different types of buyers. Farming and marketing simultaneously is not for everyone.
Yet profitability is a major challenge for small farms that choose to remain small. The Vermont Farm to Plate Strategic Plan has collected U.S. Census data that highlights the financial woes of small farms nationally. Farms are twice as likely to lose money if the farm is a part-time endeavor of the owners. Farms that sell less than $100,000 in goods have a 50 percent chance of profits. Farms that sell between $100,000 and $250,000 when farming is the primary occupation have a more than 85 percent chance to profit. Again, many argue that individual farms need to scale up to increase their efficiencies. It seems like a no-brainer to scale up to meet market demand and also enhance profits, right?
Scaling up does look great on paper but it comes with significant financial hurdles, as expanding farms need to make major investments in land and buildings. An expanding beef farm, for example, will need to access large amounts of up-front capital (usually through debt or owner savings) to bring young stock in (or raise them), yet the stock won’t be sold as meat for up to two years. An expanding beef farm willing to borrow $500,000 to expand will be in a great position to advance their business, but the majority of Vermont farms are not able or interested to take those risks. A half-million-dollar investment entails at least a 15-year financial commitment, management of building projects, and adjustment of management practices that many small farms prefer to avoid.
Given these small farm challenges, it is necessary to look at solutions that don’t happen at the farm level. A new call-out to “scale up brands,” not farms, is needed to capture market opportunities and to remedy certain limitations in our small farm food system. Aggregated brands are companies that buy, market, and sell products from groups of farms under one brand name. They recognize that small farms in Vermont can’t “do it all” but still do many things well. With the right coordination, these brands and their distribution frameworks can improve the economics of independent farms by purchasing their products while helping to solve the key price point, volume, service, and quality issues that both producers and consumers want to overcome.
Selling products to a brand aggregator does not necessarily imply that a farmer has to resign herself to commodity agriculture. Dairy farmer cooperatives like Agri-Mark and CROPP (Organic Valley) support the movement of profits back to owner-farmers; emerging food hubs aggregate and resell numerous specialty products; and maple packers provide secure outlets for maple producers even in the most productive crop years and take on the task of marketing syrup nationally and globally. These collaborative brands often provide farmer incentives, such as technical assistance to solve production issues.
This past October, a dozen leading livestock farmers, business analysts, and distributors came together at the annual Farm to Plate gathering to consider the challenges of scaling up livestock farms. The panel included Black River Meats and Adirondack Grazers Cooperative, both examples of buyers that coordinate a consistent supply of meat from multiple farm suppliers. The panel also included independent farms managing production and marketing themselves.
Adirondack Grazers Cooperative is a newer business that sells meat from small beef producers in upstate New York to target markets that no single member producer could serve on their own. A farm in St. Lawrence County, bordering Canada, might never be able to manage sales and logistics to serve New York City but that is where the demand is. The cooperative can find good customers in New York City and elsewhere who pay strong prices and place large orders and then aggregate a single farm’s beef with products from other regional farms. Vermont’s own Black River Meats, based in Springfield, is similarly sourcing beef throughout the region and managing the logistics to sell the product. Make no mistake, this is not an easy business. Representatives from both businesses acknowledge the real work of coordinating people, product supply, and sales. The advantage, however, is that professionals can work full time on these tasks when small farmers can’t.
Time and time again, I have heard well-intentioned localvores shunning a farm that “got too big” to be hip. Similarly, I work with farmers who embrace their small farm and can’t conceive of buying 200 more acres of land, larger buildings, or complex machinery. It feels odd for me to have studied farm business management for a decade and come to the conclusion that barely breaking even is the end goal. But pushing small farmers into big farmer roles is not a guaranteed solution. If we keep farms small, however, the food system still needs a way to adapt the romantic imagery of small farms to products that work for the broader population. Our farmers need the markets, and new entities are needed to sell the products.
It’s refreshing to see a new wave of support for private labels, packers, and distributors doing the important work of aggregating farm products. Hurray for the middlemen, middlewomen, and producer cooperatives! Hurray for the next wave of competition between distributors who can provide better compensation and commitments to farmers in exchange for the branding of their small farm image! Small farms can lead to big business when they work with collaborative brands that close the sale.
Mark Cannella is an assistant professor of Extension with the University of Vermont and directs UVM Extension Farm Viability programs. Farm Viability provides a variety of farm management education programs and undertakes applied research in farm economics for audiences statewide. He also operates a small farm growing specialty potatoes in East Montpelier.
The 2015 results are in!
But first, a few thoughts:
When we launched Vermont First, we knew that in order to make strides towards our goal to increase local purchasing across all our Vermont accounts we needed to establish a baseline.
This baseline data needed to provide enough information to support the complex and detailed decisions made on the ground: for chefs, which products to purchase from a local source; for producers, which products Sodexo is looking for from local producers.
In order to support these challenging decisions, we have built our Vermont First local purchasing tracking system to break down the data by:
- Product Category (i.e. “Produce”)
- Product Sub-Category (i.e. “Apple”)
The data used to support this infographic will be instrumental in the year ahead, helping to inform conversations and decisions with producers, distributors, and chefs about local purchasing opportunities.
As we turn the corner from data compilation to data analysis, we can begin asking the tough questions to match-make between demand and supply.
We are already seeing how the data can be put into action.
In 2015, our Vermont accounts spent $123,165.50 on whole potatoes – 14% locally. Peaslee’s Potatoes, out of Guildhall, VT, sells local potatoes that are competitively priced and available through our local produce distributor, Black River Produce. After identifying this opportunity, Johnson State College began using Peaslee’s for their hand-cut fries daily in the dining hall. When I stopped in at the college earlier this month, Tom Fondakowski, General Manager, pointed out how the Peaslee’s marketing poster is now a framed wall fixture because they use Peaslee’s potatoes exclusively for the duration of their availability.
We look forward to sharing more stories like this in the months and years ahead.
Excited to read more? Check out the latest coverage on this story in Vermont Biz.
In celebration of Vermont First’s initiative to increase local food sourcing, eight Vermont colleges competed in the Localvore Cooking Challenge yesterday hosted by St. Michael’s College. Click here to see the live story from WCAX News.
This friendly competition challenges professional and up-and-coming Sodexo chefs to create dishes around foods and products that are native to Vermont. The goal of the Localvore Cooking Challenge is to highlight fresh, local ingredients and promote local farmers and vendors. It provides students with an opportunity to learn about the benefits of local products while enjoying delicious food.
Each campus culinary team prepared and served their local dishes to students during the special lunch at Saint Michael’s College. Students then voted on their favorite dish. The culinary teams were also judged on presentation, creativity, technical execution, and guest interaction by guest judges from the Vermont food community.
A HUGE shout-out to all the stellar culinary teams from each participating campus.
- Castleton University – Smoked Chicken & CHeese Sliders with caramelized Whistle Pig onions and cheddar ale sauce, apple beet hash, and apple pave
- Champlain College – Native Pulled Pork Slider with Queen City Brewery Smokey Rauchbier Beer and rainbow carrot and cabbage slaw
- Johnson State College – Chickpea Crepe, Risotto Balls, Mud Pie Mini Cupcake
- Lyndon State College – Maple Chipotle BBQ Beef Slider, Smoked Gouda Mac & Cheese, BBQ Tempeh Slider
- Norwich University – Vermont Maple Carrot Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
- Saint Michael’s College – Maple Bourbon Ice Cream with crispy apples, candied fennel stems, cranberry confit, butternut squash coulis and streusel.
- University of Vermont – Vermont Elk Sausage and Ricotta Cavatelli Saute
- Vermont Tech – Carne Desmechada Arepa with NE Raised Beef Brisket and Queso Fresco from Champlain Creamery and Caramelized Apple Arepa with apples from Champlain Orchards and Maple Syrup made at Vermont Tech.
Can you say yum?
Congratulations to the St. Michael’s College team for their first place win this year!
A core goal of Vermont First is to create a local food strategic purchasing model that can be replicated in other states and regions. Just under a year since I began as the Vermont First Coordinator, we are excited to see the model taking hold in a fellow New England state – Maine.
Below is the recent announcement about the hire of the new Maine Course Director, Maeve McInnis.
I’m looking forward to working closely with my new Maine counterpart to continue to build a robust and innovative local purchasing model.
January 26, 2016
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Email: varun.avasthi @sodexo.com
Maeve McInnis Hired to Serve as Director of Sodexo’s Maine Course
Portland, ME. January 26, 2016 – Sodexo has hired Maeve McInnis to serve as the first
director of the company’s Maine Course program. Sodexo’s Maine Course, a statewide initiative created to prioritize serving local and sustainably harvested food at all of the company’s healthcare, education, government, and corporate client sites in Maine, was introduced in June 2015. The initiative includes partnering with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) to purchase 100% responsibly harvested whitefish from the Gulf of Maine by 2020. Sodexo made great strides in the first six months of the program, with several locations already meeting the 100% purchasing goal. To take this commitment to sustainable food sourcing and local economic impact to the next level, the company recently selected McInnis to lead its ongoing efforts.
McInnis will build on Sodexo’s sustainability foundation in the state by working with Maine producers to assist them in understanding and navigating the intricacies of the wholesale market. She will also work with vendors in the supply chain to help them access a larger customer base through established distribution networks. According to the state’s Agricultural Resource Development Division, there are 8,173 farms in Maine, which have a $1.2 billion impact on the state’s economy. In addition to her efforts to build relationships with Maine-based producers, McInnis will also focus on tracking progress and provide statistical analysis and data to drive action around efforts to support the Maine economy.
“I am most excited to forge relationships with local farmers and food producers in an effort to bring them into our supply-chain in a mutually beneficial manner,” McInnis said, explaining the positive impact these relationships can have on small, independent businesses. “Together, we can address some of the roadblocks that smaller growers and producers face to becoming a vendor for large institutions.”
McInnis, originally from Cape Neddick, ME and a current resident of Portland, earned a master’s degree in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management with a specialization in Food & the Environment from the Milano School of International Relations, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School in New York. Her passion for social justice, local food systems, and the environment make her the perfect person to lead this effort to serve more local food at a variety of sites throughout Maine.