Locally Sourced Foods on Campus: Thinking Outside the Box

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June 2, 2011. The University of Winnipeg has been praised in the media lately for a dramatic turnaround in the quality and profitability of their food services operation; Macleans’ 2009 University Rankings had taken the university to task for poor food and poor service, and the institution’s dining operation was seeing attrition in its student customers. In the two years since, not only has the University of Winnipeg recovered, but its food services operation — which now focuses on organic, locally sourced food — is the most requested caterer in the local community, its head chef has won an Iron Chef Award, and the return on investment has been so high that the university is preparing to expand its operation by launching an off-campus restaurant.

This week, we spoke with the University of Winnipeg’s president, Lloyd Axworthy, to ask what other institutions in the US and Canada could learn from the success of his institution’s transition to locally sourced foods. He offered several key takeaways worth noting:

  • Conduct thorough research into student demand
  • Consider public-private partnerships that can help manage costs and mitigate risk
  • Recognize that your purchasing program can actually impact the market in ways that will allow you to negotiate lower prices
  • Investigate job training and workforce development grants that can help defray the costs of training dining services workers, when expanding into locally-sourced foods

Understand Student Demand

“Two years ago our students were voting with their feet,” Axworthy recalls. “When we asked, students told us that the food they were receiving, they weren’t eating. Not only were the national rankings of decent food putting us near the bottom, but student tastes were beginning to change. More international students were enrolling, and more domestic students were looking for organic choices.”

The University of Winnipeg identified this trend and set out to assess it methodically. Among the steps recommended for other institutions:

  • Survey students regularly on their dining experience and food choices
  • Conduct small focus groups to dig deeper
  • Identify where students are eating off campus, what food choices they’re making, and how those choices are priced

It’s important to neither jump into an expensive venture on a hunch nor cling to the traditional dining services options on the assumption that student demand for organic, locally sourced foods is too new; you need to have a strong base of research to inform the decision.

Getting Innovative: Public/Private Partnerships

When transitioning to locally sourced foods, rather than look to reinvent the wheel, do a careful review of potential local and national partners. These might include for-profit corporations, government entities, or nonprofit organizations with a mission focused on environmental sustainability or economic development for your local area.

Axworthy recommends:

  • Look for a partner who shares or complements your vision
  • Identify a partner who can help you run an efficient auxiliary business
  • Engage in early conversations on risk, autonomy, and shared ownership of the dining operation, and proceed with clarity on both what you are willing to concede and what you hope to gain

For example, Axworthy notes that when you find a partner your institution can trust, it may be in the institution’s best interests to allow the partner to operate food services with autonomy, as long as there is a clear and regular channel of accountability and reporting back to the institution. In return for autonomy, engage in conversations around profit sharing and risk. There may be intelligent concessions you can make in return for the partner holding liability.

The University of Winnipeg opted for a unique solution, establishing shared ownership of a dining services operation between a nonprofit partner and a business development arm of the institution. You can read about how they structured the partnership here.

Local Purchasing: Rethinking the Market

Axworthy notes the higher costs of locally sourced, organic food, but advises that an intelligently structured purchasing program can significantly mitigate the costs:

  • If your institution has a large student body, recognize that your buying power may empower you to shift the outlook of local suppliers; “previously, the local market for organic food in our area was small,” Axworthy notes, “but by opening a large market of students, we established a market leverage for organic foods, and were able to negotiate lower prices and set new market standards while giving certainty of supply to local farmers”
  • If your institution is a small liberal arts college with a more limited enrollment, check for other institutions in your area that you might partner with in purchasing local foods
  • Manage costs seasonally by planning to use the full range of foods available in your area

Looking for Grants

Finally, the move to locally sourced foods requires new investments in staffing and training, which can be quite daunting. Axworthy found another “outside-the-box” solution by pursuing an aggressive search for government grants to fund job training and workforce development initiatives. Both in Canada and the US, there are a series of federal (and often state and provincial) grants available for retraining workers, training employees from ethnic minority populations, and training workers for fields related to green agriculture and environmental sustainability. In the US, a regular search of the grant listings at the US Department of Labor and the US Department of Agriculture may reveal unexpected opportunities.