Institutions are a large and vital part of any regional food system. How can these institutions lead the way with sustainability initiatives, and what are some of the barriers preventing them from doing so? The fourth and final Campus Food and Energy Seminar, Revolutionizing the Lunch Line, brought in a compelling trio of speakers to answer these questions and provide their own insights on the role of institutions in revolutionizing a food system’s relationship with sustainability and local foods.
Virginia Flanders is the Director of Nutrition & Food Service for the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital. This small hospital in the Northeast Kingdom has 600 employees, and in 2000 it received a grant to partner with local farms for their cafeteria needs. The program was successful, so Flanders spearheaded an initiative for the hospital to join Healthy Food in Health Care, a 500 hospital network of institutions pledging to partner with local farmers to provide healthy food to their staff and patients. Flanders underscored the link between nutrition and overall health as one of her main motivations for choosing to source the majority of her hospital’s food from local and sustainable sources. In addition to sourcing from local farmers, her hospital uses no transfat or fried foods, composts, makes everything homemade, and doesn’t use plastic wrap, straws, or paper napkins in its facilities to reduce waste. Flanders also noted the importance of educating cooks and staffs about their institutions role in a sustainable food system, and building cross movement coalitions to share successes.
The second panelist, Kierstin Wall, is the Northeast regional field organizer for the Real Food Challenge. In 2012, UVM was the fifth school in the nation to sign on to the Real Food Challenge, pledging to source 20% of its food from “real” sources by 2020. Wall explained that the overall goal of the Real Food Challenge as a national youth movement is to shift $1 billion of the money spent nationally on campus food systems towards local food sources. So far, 21 schools have signed up, and over 100 colleges are using the student-run Real Food Calculator tool. As a field organizer, Wall hosts leadership development summits and strategy retreats for students passionate about real food from all over the Northeast. Wall sees the Real Food Challenge as an important accountability tool for pushing institutions like UVM with large food systems towards more local and sustainable options, thus setting an example for the entire regional food system.
The final panelist, Peter Allison, is the coordinator of Farm to Institution New England, a six state collaboration to procure more New England grown food for regional schools, colleges, and hospitals. Allison pointed out that in New England alone, institutions spend $1 billion per year on food, serving over 3 million consumers. He works with eight colleges to develop case studies and favorite recipes in order to make local food more easily attainable for other regional institutions. Allison emphasized the role of institutions as educators and stewards of regional food systems, and underscored the importance of looking beyond a strictly local food system to a more regional, not national or international, food system. Allison believes that despite covering a wide area of territory, the New England states can work together to source food for each other and benefit from a sustainable, regional food system.
The panel was followed by a lively question and answer period. The panelists all emphasized the barriers to local food that exist including cost, timing of fresh food, unsupportive administrations, and the general small scale nature of sustainable food sources compared to the large scale nature of institutions. However, all of the panelists were clearly hopeful about the direction New England institutions are taking with their individual food systems. Allison commented that, “local food movements are building and getting more sophisticated”, and with more innovative partnerships and educational tools the movement will continue to move forward.
The panelists also remarked on the power of larger institutions, like UVM, to change their food systems. “There is no such thing as too big for local”, one panelist remarked. Yes, flexibility is necessary, but overall the scale of an institution is perceived as power, not necessarily a barrier. I was relieved to hear this as a UVM student. Often colleges and universiites highlighted for revolutionizing their food systems, ones that I admire, are smaller institutions. I am proud to be a UVM student and have found my niche in such a large school. While I appreciate the scale of options the University Dining Services provide, I am happy to understand that its size is not a barrier to providing more sustainable food. To echo the message some of the panelists said, I believe further student involvement and educational events are necessary to bring UVM to 20% real food by 2020. Hopefully, UVM can reach a higher percentage of real food purchases thereafter. Moreover, a little extra flexibility on the part of Sodexo and the administration could go a long way.
The Clean Energy Fund and Food Systems Initiative have sponsored this semester’s Campus Food and Energy Seminar series. The goal of the series is to engage in critical dialogue about UVM’s current food system and, eventually, use the feedback compiled at the seminars to create a meaningful action plan for a sustainable food system on campus.
Food Systems Initiative: The UVM Food Systems Initiative is an transdisciplinary academic effort that includes research and the Food Systems minor in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, among other endeavors.
Office of Sustainability: The UVM Office of Sustainability is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE--link) and works to advance sustainability and environmental responsibility at UVM.
Clean Energy Fund: The Clean Energy Fund is the result of a self-imposed $10 student fee that works to advance renewable energy at UVM.
Real Food Challenge: In 2012, the University of Vermont became the fifth school in the country to sign on to the Real Food Challenge. UVM has agreed to work with University Dining Services to buy at least 20% real food annually by 2020, with “real food” being defined as local, sustainable, fair trade, and humane. UVM uses the “Real Food Calculator” to calculate the amount of “real food” consumed on campus. As of Fall 2012, UVM has purchased 13.58% real food, and the numbers keep growing.