At A Glance: Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa
•Richard D. Williams, director of dining services
•Terry Waltersdorf, assistant director
•Mary S. Kirk, assistant director
•Scott D. Turley, executive chef
•1,410 students, 1,185 of whom are residents
•$5 million budget, staff of 43, preparing 2,600 meals a day
Innovation: Last July, Grinnell centralized all dining operations in the new, $42-million facility, the 800-seat Joe Rosenfield 25 Center. The servery houses a marketplace concept, including: wok station, pizza station, Honor "G"rill sandwiches, Vegan Special, pasta bar, eggs to order, Plat du Jour (rotisserie and carved meats), soup and salad bar, 8th Avenue Deli and Dessert Bar.
Until recently, the practice of sourcing products locally was confined mostly to foodservice operators in institutions on the East and West coasts. But as the trend picks up speed, operators in America's heartland are exploring the benefits of buying local.
Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa, is one of those Midwestern institutions leading the charge. But Dining Services has found that sourcing locally has a number of challenges, as well as tangible rewards.
Currently, Grinnell's foodservice department purchases from 15 nearby farms and orchards. Last year, the college spent approximately $61,000 on food purchased from local suppliers.
"That might not sound like a significant sum, but to us it was," says Richard Williams, Grinnell's director of dining services.
And he's upping the ante. For this year's fall term, purchases totaled over $70,000. One new vendor is Larry's Berries and Vi's Vines. "They grow grapes locally, and so we had a supply of wonderful grapes this past fall," says Williams, "and we were able to add local orchards for apples and pears." He has expanded the number of local suppliers and is constantly seeking new ones.
Williams tells the story about one of his purchasing directors who just happened to pull over at a roadside stand 30 miles north of the college. After buying some produce, the purchasing director got to talking with the farmer. "Long story short, we ended up buying apples from them," he recalls.
"The same farm will supply Grinnell with tomatoes and cucumbers as well," Williams adds.
Among the items in Grinnell's local market basket are fresh vegetables, grapes, apples and melons in season, fluid milk, pork, soybean oil, fresh herbs, cage-free eggs as well as an egg substitute used in vegan dishes, honey, pasta, and blue cheese from nearby Maytag Dairy.
Although, Williams doesn't think that the local sourcing policy has had a significant impact on sales, he does believe that Grinnell students appreciate being patrons of neighboring farmers. "We haven't taken a survey," he says. "But we have a very vocal student body. They let you know what they think."
Overcoming challenges: While sourcing locally has bucolic appeal, there are challenges to overcome, which is why Williams still relies on commercial distributors. The college's primary food supplier is Sysco of Iowa. Additional produce is purchased from Loffredo Fresh Produce Co. in Des Moines. Its food purchases last year totaled about $1.3 million.
One important consideration is, are there enough local suppliers to satisfy your needs year round? In Iowa during the winter, points out Williams, there is generally snow on the ground and below-freezing temperatures. Obviously, local fresh produce is strictly seasonal.
Another consideration is product quality. "Just because it's local doesn't mean it's better quality," notes Williams. He points out that finding high-quality items can be difficult.
Delivering the goods: Logistics can be difficult when you're dealing with a dozen or more small suppliers, each with their own ways of doing things, adds Williams. He insists that potential producers be able to deliver their goods. And delivery schedules can be erratic. "Sometimes they bring apples once a week. Sometimes, it's a couple times a week," relates Williams. "With some suppliers, when we call in an order, they tell us when they will be able to make a delivery."
Working with local producers is definitely more labor-intensive than dealing with big suppliers.
"You have to be committed because it's an extra step," declares Williams. Whereas he can order from Sysco with the click of a mouse, Williams has to deal directly with the small suppliers and often take whatever he can get. "We'll say to them, 'What have you got to offer this week'?"
Consistency, or lack of it, is another challenge especially in the beginning. "We would order 300 pounds of potatoes," Williams recalls, "and they might get here with only 100 pounds. Then we would have to scramble to find another supplier."
These days, though, Grinnell has dealt with a number of its suppliers long enough so that each knows what to expect and what's expected. There's commitment on both sides.
Food costs are still a challenge for Grinnell's director of procurement, Terry Waltersdorf. For example, prices for items like cage-free eggs and organic produce are naturally higher. On the other hand, purchasing apples and pears directly from the orchards has saved the college money, 20%, Williams estimates, over buying from larger suppliers.
How does your garden grow?: How much can Grinnell's local food purchasing program grow? "As big as we can get it," answers Williams.
The director of dining services and his staff are constantly on the lookout for more prospective suppliers. And networking is paying off. "If somebody hears that we're doing it," says Williams, "they'll give us a call."
An advocate of local sourcing, Williams urges his colleagues to work through any difficulties they might encounter setting such a program in place at their own schools.
He suggests: "The more experience you have, and the bigger the commitment you have to purchasing locally, the easier it is to do."