2014 Silver Plate: Mark LoParco

Published in FSD Update

LoParco’s passion at Montana is inspiring students, colleagues and communities.

By Megan Warmouth, Associate Editor

Raised in upstate New York, Mark LoParco’s interest in sustainable food systems began early in life. “I grew up in a family of 10 and lived out in the country and hunted and fished and did those kinds of things, and still do,” he explains. This agricultural upbringing, paired with a sixth-grade geography lesson that introduced LoParco to Montana and the state’s vast land mass ratio, set him on the course for a future of food in the West.

From the ground up

Today you’ll find LoParco at the helm of University of Montana Dining, a department that LoParco, as its first and only director, played an integral role in establishing. “Basically this department was built literally from the ground up by me and my staff over the 22 years that I’ve been here,” he explains. With no best practices in place, “we were serving food and that was about it. There were no policies and procedures; it was just a ton of work.”

But LoParco and his team did the work, and then some. Today, the department boasts an annual budget of $12 million with more than 500 employees and serves more than 5,000 meals per day.

Among the long list of achievements during LoParco’s tenure, including multiple sustainability initiatives, department rebranding, facility renovations and re-engineering of meal plans, is the Farm to College Program established in 2003. Under the program, fresh, locally grown and processed foods are brought to campus through direct relationships with local farmers, ranchers and businesses. More than $800,000 in Montana-produced foods are purchased each year, supporting the state’s agricultural economy while satisfying and inspiring students. The initiative received more cachet when LoParco and colleague Neva Hassanein, professor of environmental studies at the university, gave a recent TEDx Talk about the program. TED is a nonprofit “devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks,” according to the organization’s website.

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