Buying local products has
become almost de rigueur on most college campuses, but the process still
presents some challenges. Matthew Biette, director of dining services at
2,350-student Middlebury College in Vermont, talked to FSD about how those challenges can be overcome.
What was the biggest
challenge in developing your local purchasing program?
For us, “developing” has
never been an issue with a buy local program. We live in an agricultural state
that promotes its products and quality. The difficulty is coming to an
agreement. Just because it’s a local product doesn’t mean we’ll buy it. Price
and quality have to meet and both need to work within our budget. We have had
experiences where people developed a product with their own local ingredients.
When all was said and done, the finished product was over five times the price
of a nationally branded product—there was no way we could fit that into our
system. However, there have also
been local farmers who had some artisanal cheese that we would be able to use
from time to time on special events and that worked perfectly. To overcome
these challenges, we have conversations, set our goals and work the
negotiations. There are times when it isn’t feasible and we walk away.
What local purchasing
goals have you set for your program?
We have been trying to stay
in the 25% local range but with the current economic conditions, it’s a bit
more difficult. Recently, we had an economics course look at the possibility of
taking our 25% to 50%. Some of
this would push the prices higher but depending on how we use the second half
of the budget, it could work.
What local products are
most difficult to procure and why?
Meats are available but not
in the quantity we would continually use them. The pricing and availability
equation doesn’t work—too little product, too much money. Fresh produce in the
winter isn’t impossible but variety is minimal.
What are the most
effective ways to market your local purchasing program?
This program has been
engrained in our purchasing model since the college was incorporated. Lately, we have had the opportunity to
grow the number of local producers and have developed relationships. As for
letting people know, we use word of mouth and articles. In every tour of the
college, perspective students are told about dining, shown an organic garden
and often it isn’t the first time they have heard about it.
What advice would you give
other operators who might want to improve their local purchasing programs?
Don’t be afraid but don’t jump
into the deep end. The products need to work within your menus and cost
structure. Just because it is
local, may not be reason enough to buy it. Location is also extremely
important. One of the benefits of buying local is supporting the local
economies and keeping jobs in your area. Some products are grown and further
processed in your area, others may be impossible to get. Certainly, I never
look for local bananas or coffee but you can bet I’m looking for a dairy, maple
and apple products first and foremost.