Valley Bounty: UMass Dining models eating local at huge scale

  • A dish featuring mushrooms from Mycoterra Farm and kabocha squash from Atlas Farm, both of South Deerfield, cilantro from Queen’s Greens of Amherst, and micro greens. UMASS AMHERST DINING

  • A sweet potato tart with pecan praline, made with sweet potatoes from the UMass Student Farm. UMASS AMHERST DINING

  • Kathy Wicks, director of Sustainability for UMass Amherst Dining and Executive Chef Tony Jung visit with Michael Docter, right, of Winter Moon Roots in Hadley, a local supplier. UMASS AMHERST DINING/KEITH TOFFLING

For the Gazette
Published: 10/22/2021 4:41:32 PM

Buying local is one way to “vote with your fork,” using consumer demand to help shape the economy. Individuals, families and businesses all have some power in this way, but some have more than others.

One family votes with a handful of forks — UMass Amherst Dining votes with 55,000. That’s how many meals they serve daily during peak season at four dining halls, 30 retail locations, and across their catering services and hotel. Over a year, UMass Dining spends $25-30 million to serve 6 million meals, and they’re doing a lot to invest that in local farms and businesses when sourcing the food they need.

In economic terms, UMass Amherst is what’s called an anchor institution — a large organization with a steady demand for goods and services that a community can rely on. Says Chris Howland, director of Procurement, Logistics and Special Projects at UMass Amherst Dining, “We’re here for the long term, with resources to invest in the Valley if there are products we can use.”

In speaking with Howland and UMass Amherst Dining’s director of sustainability, Kathy Wicks, it’s clear the university is aware of the buying power it wields and tries to wield it responsibly. Local sourcing of food is a cornerstone.

The school uses a tiered system for prioritizing what they buy, first looking for products from within Massachusetts, then expanding the search to New England and finally a 250-mile radius from campus. Currently, 8% of their purchasing is within Massachusetts and 20% is within New England — well above the average of 14.4% that Massachusetts colleges and universities spent on local purchasing, as recorded by Farm to Institution New England in 2017.

Beyond local, there are many other factors they consider, too.

“Just buying local is so yesterday,” Howland says. “We’re also beginning to track diversity, equity and inclusion as it relates to our purchasing.”

Wicks also mentions sustainability indicators, mostly relating to production standards such as “organic” or “humanely raised.”

“These are things we pay attention to,” Wicks says, “and we encourage our business partners to move towards regenerative practices if they can.” She lists CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources as two entities she’s seen help farmers learn, fund and implement changes to meet some of these standards.

In many cases, local farms already have significant ability to provide what the university wants, and good communication and coordination are all that’s needed. As Wicks explains, “We meet with a number of our local partners in January when they’re developing their growing plans,” charting out what they can provide and when.

In other cases a bit more effort is required, but UMass Amherst Dining and local producers can work together to create the supply that’s needed. Here, the most powerful thing the university can do is make a promise.

For some, just the university’s commitment to purchase their products provides enough security to grow their business. “We’ve had a number of partners expand just based on the opportunity to be a vendor to UMass Amherst,” Wicks explains.

Howland also shares that the university has even written letters of support to help farms secure loans to scale up.

“When a bank sees they have a customer like UMass that isn’t going anywhere and can commit to that purchase, it really helps,” he says.

It’s worth noting that UMass Amherst Dining has the autonomy to set its own priorities in part because they run things in house, rather than contracting with an outside food service company such as Aramark, Sodexo or Bon Appetit, the biggest such providers for U.S. colleges and universities, according to Inside Higher Ed. “Smaller schools may not have the capacity to do this,” says Howland — even the other UMass campuses.

The biggest factor feeding UMass Amherst’s ability to buy more local food is its location, Howland says. “We’re blessed in this area. There’s challenges with sourcing local food in a city, but here in the Valley there’s such rich soil and so much food available.”

Howland lists seasonal produce among the easiest local food to procure and notes the strides they’ve made in sourcing local proteins as well, including dairy, meat, seafood, eggs and mushrooms. UMass Amherst Dining’s website includes a full list of over 100 local businesses and distributors they source from.

Balancing local supply and demand across the seasons remains one of their biggest challenges. “We do the bulk of our business during the academic year between September and May,” Howland says, but that’s at odds with the growing season for many crops.

“Making sure we coordinate our needs with the vendors’ supply is key,” he says, as is producers’ ability to store crops and deliver them regularly over the year.

Another challenge is their kitchens’ capacity to process incoming local food.

“The time it takes to prepare the amount of food we have to prepare … it’s a lot,” Wicks says. Whenever a local producer can peel, cut or otherwise process their product, it becomes a more desirable purchase for the university.

Of course, many foods are just hard to grow or find locally in the quantities UMass Amherst uses. Beans and grains are two such staples, though they are starting to make headway there, Wicks says, noting their relationship with Ground Up Grains, a local grain mill in Hadley.

How UMass Amherst brings local food into their kitchens is one part of this story. From there the school’s chefs transform those ingredients into meals, attempting to satisfy many different cultural and dietary preferences. This presents its own challenges and opportunities.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity is to engage eaters in the same kinds of discussions the institution is having about what responsible decision-making looks like concerning food. Eating local is one issue to consider, but Wicks mentions several others issues the university highlights in its educational programming, including climate impacts, health, waste and the cultural history of different cuisines.

“We really want to make the connection that there are people and systems behind where your food comes from,” she says, “and you can actively participate and shape that multiple times a day.”

Adds Howland, “We have a really big opportunity here to change people’s lives in a positive way. Not everyone at UMass has been exposed to the types of things we’re able to do, both culinary and how we source things. As people experience this, they become awakened to what food is able to do, and it’s pretty powerful.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) To learn more about which institutions in the Valley support the local food economy, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.




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