Dear Umbra,

I am a student at Hartwick College running the Grassroots Environmental Club. The college’s major cafeteria is run by a large food company that also serves prisons. In a meeting with the director, I was told they have the power to get any food. When I asked if we can get local, organic food, they responded that it would cost too much and be a hassle. How can I convince them that the quality of the food is way better, that plenty of local vendors would love the business, and that, since the college has fewer than 1,500 students, it would be feasible to at least incorporate local food?

Oneonta, N.Y.

Dearest Andy,

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Whoopee! You are cutting edge! Luckily, though, you’re not so cutting edge that you have to invent the wheel. You get to borrow someone else’s wheel.

Is your school’s food sub par?

Colleges, elementary schools, nursing homes, and institutions of all types are taking steps to bring local food onto their menus. It can be easy, it can be hard, it can be immediate, it can take a long time. From your brief description, I think you are on the hard end — but! That should only spur you to greater heights.

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Since we agree on the benefits of local food (flavor, freshness, local economics, living landscapes, family farms), let us look at the situation from the food company’s point of view. The company is large and serving several clients. It cuts costs by ordering large amounts of food from as few suppliers as possible. Just as we find shopping at a supermarket more convenient than going to the butcher, the cheese shop, the drugstore, the bakery, etc., a large company prefers one-stop shopping (and billing). The food comes from one or two suppliers, the suppliers are almost certainly not farms but middlefolks, and the food is definitely prepped in some way prior to arrival. You’ve seen that stuff: cans of diced carrots, boxes of bread crumbs, peaches in syrup.

To ask a vendor to purchase locally means inconvenience to them. The buyer will need to keep track of more invoices; the grower will have only certain items; the products will not be prepped, which means paying employees to slice and dice; and local products will be more expensive. But there are several reasons why a food company would be willing to add local purchasing to its operations. One is altruism; another is commands from the contractees (your college); another is pressure from clients (those buying the meals).

You’ve tried the altruism tactic, and it may eventually work. Next steps are to try the other two tactics, but with support from experienced people. As I said, you are joining a movement. The Community Food Security Coalition’s Farm to College program has more than enough information to get you started, and offers technical support. Cornell’s Cooperative Extension is a leader in farm-to-school issues in New York, so check them out as well. And good luck.


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