Sustainability in Practice: Fair, Farm Partnership Increase Local Purchases

Montana State purchases 23% of its products locally.

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

At Montana State University, in Bozeman, dining services’ local purchasing program, called Montana Made, now purchases 23% of its products locally. Anna Diffenderfer, Montana Made program coordinator, says the program uses several tactics to achieve that number.

“We attend a lot of events that are put on by our state department of agriculture as well as local graduate organizations that bring buyers and sellers together, so we come across a lot of the local producers that way,” Diffenderfer says. “I’m very involved in the farming and ranching community in our area so I have a network to be able to call and ask a person that I know who they know that could help us. Once we make contact we present our purchasing requirements to them. There are different requirements for produce, meat and value-added products. We’re striving to become a model for other institutional purchasing.”

The Montana Made program first got started as a result of increased demand from students and local producers, says Diffenderfer. It officially began in 2006 with some AmeriCorps VISTA employees. Now the program is a student position, but the department is looking into turning it into a full-time position with foodservices. Local for Montana Made means the item is produced and processed within the state of Montana.

“The program [affects] several areas of our department,” Diffenderfer says. “We have our Montana Mondays, where each Monday of April and November we feature a lunch that is made primarily with Montana Made ingredients in our retail location. In October we host a Montanafest dinner, which is similar but on a much larger scale. Then we have our local food fair symposium, which was held in April. For that we bring in a keynote speaker, have roundtable sessions and a vendor showcase. That is our main outreach program for the community. We usually have about 400 or 500 people.”

In addition, during Earth Week, the department offers a special breakfast, lunch and dinner composed solely of Montana Made items. One new initiative for the program is its partnership with the student farm, which is bringing locally grown produce into the dining halls.

“About this time last year we got together with some of the buyers for MSU and the managers of the farm to talk about products that would be good places to start, with the idea of creating the system, working through the kinks, getting the ordering and delivery packaging and all of that down so that the farm can pass that on to other local produce growers,” Diffenderfer says.

“We are working on that with a program called Soup’s On. We have a soup station in our retail location and we are looking at allotting one of those soups to Montana products. That is going to be our pilot to bring in more produce from the area using the model created with the farm.”

The biggest challenge for the program has been finding the quantities that the department requires while not having to order from multiple vendors. Diffenderfer says the department hopes that the producers in the area will form some sort co-op or an aggregation where they can compile all their produce and make it easier for the university to purchase.

“The other obstacle as far as produce goes, is our purchasing requirements are geared toward medium-sized farms so it deters smaller farmers because they don’t necessarily think the requirements apply to them,” Diffenderfer says. “We’re working on modifying that. We are trying to figure out how can we maintain food safety, but make it applicable not just to medium and large farmers?”

Diffenderfer says flexibility and patience are important when working on a local purchasing program.