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Nancy Buffone: UMass responds to caterers’ criticism

With so many new terrific eateries opening in recent years, Amherst has become a destination for foodies. But while customers savor superb meals in Amherst, one can get the mistaken impression from recent comments that the University of Massachusetts has somehow started an unsavory food fight with our local restaurants and caterers.

As someone who delights in Amherst restaurants and represents UMass in the community, I find the situation, unfortunately, clouded by misperceptions and falsehoods.

First, a word about the university’s financial challenges. State support for UMass Amherst has been cut nearly $23 million during the past five years.

The traditional college-age population is declining across the Northeast. We must compete every day to attract the best students and engage supporters. So when we invite a range of guests to campus — parents, prospective students, alumni and potential donors — it is to advance the university’s critical interests. That’s the raison d’etre for the events, and we find that sharing a meal on campus is one of the many ways of creating appreciation and support for UMass. Such hospitality is vital to our success, and we are pleased that many of our visitors also spend time and dollars in the Pioneer Valley.

A misconception also exists about state dollars. The state appropriation to UMass Amherst accounts for only 20 percent of the total campus budget, with nearly all state funds devoted to payroll. The money we receive from taxpayers across Massachusetts — as well as students and families and donors — is entrusted to UMass so we can fulfill our mission, which is to create a vibrant learning and living community. There is no “responsibility” or designation to devote a certain amount of dollars for catering or dining. We do so, as we should, when it advances the university. That’s our true responsibility to the taxpayers.

Much of the recent discussion revolves around our catering policy and assertions that UMass spending in town has declined. This involves a third set of misconceptions.

UMass Dining Services, of which catering is a part, receives no state funds and is entirely self-sufficient, deriving most of its revenue from feeding 16,000 students daily. When families visit, they don’t receive free food. Rather, the standard dining plan includes charges for guest meals, a common practice at other colleges and in effect at UMass for a decade. Our catering policy, giving the campus the right of first refusal for catered events and limiting outside vendors to delivery, is common practice at public universities across the country, including our neighbors at the University of Connecticut and the University of New Hampshire.

Not mentioned in recent discussions, however, are the other ways that university dollars are spent with local businesses, such as recruiting faculty and staff by dining at local restaurants or having food delivered to campus. In 2012, $706,000 was spent with 26 local restaurants and caterers and $249,000 with three grocery stores. University spending at restaurants and caterers increased 34 percent during the last three years. For example, university dollars spent at the Black Sheep Deli has increased over the past three years from $65,000 to $92,000, at Moti from $600 to $4,000 and at Antonio’s from $4,800 to $8,000.

The amount UMass invests in hospitality is but a small portion of its financial contribution to the region. The campus provides $1.4 billion in economic activity to the Massachusetts economy, including $432 million in payroll and $30 million spent on goods and services with local businesses and communities.

What makes all this possible is successful partnerships, and among the most vital is the relationship with our host communities. Our active participation in the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), our engagement with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, and our efforts with Promoting Downtown Amherst (PDA) to bring students downtown all demonstrate our commitment to Amherst and the business community. In addition, we are working to expand these efforts. The plans include:

• Implementation of a OneCard system allowing students to purchase goods and services from participating off-campus businesses using a university debit-style card. Anticipated implementation is next fall.

• Working with the Chamber and BID to promote local businesses to conference hosts and attendees as well as to visitors on campus for special university events such as commencement and homecoming.

• Exploring the possibility of a yearly mass distribution of a marketing piece to targeted UMass faculty and staff in cooperation with the Chamber.

So, let’s move beyond this misperceived food fight and continue to engage in building partnerships from which we all benefit.

Nancy Buffone is executive director of external relations and university events at UMass Amherst and is a longtime Amherst resident.

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