Consider the source: How operators are leveraging local partnerships to propel sustainability

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The dining team at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) was recently in a pickle: how to transport high-quality, plant-based eggplant meatballs from a local, sustainable supplier who had no means of delivering the product to the hospital’s door.

This spring, the team acquired a refrigerated van to meet that need, says Shawn Goldrick, senior director of patient support services for the 398-bed hospital. Because the van had additional capacity, it could also carry food bought by other nonhospital clients aligned with the supplier, including a local nonprofit. Ultimately, the van helped consolidate deliveries and ease road congestion using a single vehicle, reducing the carbon footprint associated with those trips.

“The word ‘sustainability’ means something different to everybody,” says Goldrick, whose staff of 100 serves 1.5 million meals a year through patient feeding plus retail. “Within our organization-wide initiative to provide ‘green health’ is a mantra where we ask, ‘How do we get to yes?’”

Broad-based sustainable practices have reached a fever pitch, growing new stakeholders each year. Because society demands ultrasafe, quality and healthy foods—all rolled into one—dining departments tend to lead other parts of an organization when it comes to sustainability. And local procurement is often at the epicenter of that change-making.

Like a good neighbor

The benefits of local partnerships cut both ways: Local distributors and suppliers can flourish when teaming up with big customers wielding buying power, while dining programs build reputability because they can procure dynamic local cuisines.

BCH stepped in when Commonwealth Kitchen, a local incubator, was preparing to dispose of an oversupply of local, sustainably grown—and unwanted—apples that were harvested at the back end of the growing season. The foodservice team converted 800 pounds of the older apples into its Chef’s Choice-branded apple sauce—a bonus of which was keeping that produce out of the local waste stream.

Food grown and distributed locally also “generates jobs and subsequently helps stimulate economies,” Boston University (BU) noted in its 2018 Sustainability Report. “When BU leverages its purchasing power to collaborate with locally owned distributors, “the money spent circulates locally an average of seven times before it leaves the community,” says Lexie Raczka, sustainability director for Boston University Dining Services. The reduction of food miles associated with local procurement can’t be underestimated, either, as the BU sustainability report reveals that “the average distance traveled for any food is 1,494 miles.”

24 Carrots
Michigan Dining's 24 Carrots station is dedicated to vegan and vegetarian dishes. Photograph: Michigan Dining

Many smaller growers need to build scale to thrive. To that end, Harvard University Dining Services in Cambridge, Mass., helps sponsor a grant program aligned with the Boston-based Kendall Foundation, which works to create a resilient and healthy food system in New England by increasing production and consumption of local, sustainably produced food. (Harvard Dining this spring also helped host the first Small Change, Big Impact Food Summit, which brought together experts on many aspects of today’s food system, including sustainability and safety.)

Within that grant initiative, the dining team helps select annual winners of the New England Food Vision Prize, an award of up to $250,000 to promote a greater abundance of regional food on college and university menus. Grant money might be distributed to a local farmer-supplier to acquire new equipment, or to buy or lease additional acreage to fulfill future
contracts with foodservice partners based on projected volume needs. “This is changing the purchasing paradigm, as we tell farmers what we want to buy and they grow it,” says David Davidson, managing director of The Food Literacy Project within Harvard Dining.

"The word ‘sustainability’ means something different to everybody." —Shawn Goldrick

When small, local producers receive a boost, foodservice menus can likewise benefit, including Harvard Dining’s program, which regularly sources no-antibiotics-ever chicken, as well as high-quality, underutilized species of fish, such as monkfish and dogfish, which allows a break from tried-and-true varieties such as salmon and tilapia.

Along the same lines, Michigan Dining contracts with a Port Huron, Mich., family fishery for white fish, rockfish, dogfish and perch, says Steve Mangan, senior director of dining at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, noting that students are being introduced to products they might not try otherwise.

Sustainability sentinels

FSDs deploy a variety of tools and technologies to help them scrutinize suppliers’ sustainability practices. “Sustainable buying starts with the idea of traceability and 100% transparency, and that’s defined as what we know and what we don't know about our food,” says Zia Ahmed, director of dining services for The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, who works with partners—from local to global—to create a supply chain in full view.

At Michigan Dining, chefs with buying authorization use web-based dashboards to collect data and review a previous week or month’s buying activities to measure patterns of sustainable purchasing. “The dashboard can match the right price point with the right local, sustainable item to procure and allow chefs to monitor their own expenditures while prioritizing purchased items,” says Keith Soster, sustainability director for Michigan Dining. “They know what their spend is, as cost measurement is right in front of them.”

MU Dining
Michigan Dining has worked to build a culture of sustainability in its operation. Photograph: Michigan Dining

Some suppliers tell the foodservice team about their sustainable practices “before we realize they’re not able to deliver to the degree UM expects,” Soster says. “We are challenging partners to source more locally and sustainably, and that woke some of our prime vendors up.” Using requests for proposals (RFPs) to help winnow the process, dining directors can drill down to establish performance metrics around carbon footprint, animal welfare, food ingredients and more, Mangan says.

Certification is also top of mind when vetting partners within the context of sustainability practices. “The first question I ask sales reps looking to get their product onto campus is what third-party certifications they have to verify sustainability practices or sourcing transparency,” says Joseph LaChance, director of dining services at Boston University. “For some, this ends the conversation, but for others it starts a new conversation as they want to understand more. The larger the buying interest in sustainable products, the less expensive it becomes to source sustainable menu items.”

At what cost?

Local, sustainable foods can come with a lofty price tag, so finding the right partners and finding the funds to afford their products might be two different matters. “We’re always making decisions to keep our food costs in equilibrium,” Mangan says. “A vendor might establish a premium price on a food, so we might wait until the price comes down. In the meantime, we might establish another menu alternative—focus on another category.”

Mangan adds that common sense is a simple, but often overlooked, procurement tactic. “In the summertime, Michigan tomatoes are relatively inexpensive, so we’re bent on comparing price and quality,” he says. “It’s not about how beautiful that tomato is, but the taste that it provides. You don’t need a big, beautiful Honeycrisp apple every time: Sometimes you need a smaller, portable apple variety that students can eat on their way to class.”

The foodservice team at Ohio State University works with partners—from local to global—to create a supply chain in full view. Photograph: Ohio State University

Directors might be willing to pay a price for the inherent quality of certain sustainably grown foods—if it’s the right product at the right time to enhance menus. And eventually, prices will level off as those items appeal to more mainstream audiences, says Ahmed of Ohio State. He says FSDs attempting to stay within budget shouldn’t waver from containing costs, but should have room to adapt when necessary. “There are two ways to create efficiency: one is cut costs and the other is add value,” he says. “The procurement of a sustainably sourced food might cost a premium, but it adds value to menus.”

Boston Children’s realizes, too, that sourcing can consist of trade-offs to wring out value and quality. Its relationship with Northglenn, Colo.-based Niman Ranch yielded a pulled pork sandwich, not often the paragon of healthy. But product used in this one was sustainably grown, full of flavor and humanely raised at Niman, which works with a network of 720 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers. To Goldrick, the pulled pork sandwich was worth going the extra mile to procure and integrate.  

Creating a new culture

At many operations, sustainability efforts are rooted in reducing reliance on meat. However, at Boston Children’s, the team’s marketing strategy is to avoid terms such as vegetarian and vegan, as they’re not embraced by all who seek healthier options, Goldrick says. Their more prudent approach, he says, has been to roll out a marketing campaign articulating “Less Meat, Better Meat,” which is how his staff sells the power of offerings such as its plant-based eggplant meatball.

For college and university operators, organizational hurdles are often tougher to overcome than pushback from diners, with Mangan noting that “students perceive health and wellness as a priority.

Crista Martin, director for strategic initiatives and communication for Harvard Dining, agrees. “We don’t have to convince student-guests that meat doesn’t need to be a center-of-the-plate food as much as we need to convince ourselves [as program overseers],” she says. “I grew up with the traditional center-of-plate protein and accompanying side dish. Today’s students have a food regimen that’s a departure from tradition.” For many, Martin adds, tofu is the new center-of-the-plate food.

Boston Children's
At Boston Children's, the team avoids terms such as vegan, highlighting health instead. Photograph: Boston Children's Hospital

To address serving higher volumes of red meat, known to carry a heavy carbon footprint, Mangan’s team reduced serving portions of these items to 2.3 ounces. But more central to the university’s mission is pushing forward with veggie-forward ethnic cuisines, such as Asian and Latin, that pack a flavor punch. “The goal is to make these foods craveable,” Mangan says. “We know that our culinary reputation is high, but to convince some, we offer sampling and tasting around these international themes to build trust. We have a granary action station with ancient grains, grain bowls and locally sourced veggies and toppings.”  

Michigan Dining also recently implemented Sustainable Mondays, removing animal proteins from menus each Monday to spotlight plant-based protein and veggies. “We don’t get a lot of people complaining about missing meat,” Mangan says. “And maybe we can convince more guests to go meatless one meal a day or one day a week: We’re not looking to take something away, but seek to provide diners with new cuisine adventures.”

Looking forward

The road map to best practices for sustainable procurement is certain to be marked by new opportunities mixed with obstacles. One challenge that stakeholders are watching carefully is the potential increased imposition of trade tariffs and what that will mean for their buying practices, Soster says, citing potential inflated costs for items such as grains and compostable materials.

Some say another challenge will be to practice discretion when in procurement mode. To foster economic enhancement or justice—a pillar of sustainability—prudent local sourcing is also about omission—what you don’t buy. “If I decide to buy all the fruits and vegetable from a local farmers market or from a single local supplier, this depletes the supply and drives up food prices,” Ahmed says. “That’s not what we’re about.”   

"We’re not looking to take something away, but seek to provide diners with new cuisine adventures." —Steve Mangan

Receiving buy-in from and coordinating with back-of-house staff around proper protocols is another important factor. “All need to fully understand why we are doing this,” Ahmed says. “We source a locally grown, sustainable organic broccoli that’s a wonderful product, but it comes to us with more bugs and insects than you would want—this translates to much more thorough washing.”

Summing up the work in progress that is sustainability across dining, “We need to help folks understand university food is pressing the envelope to impact the way people eat,” Martin says. “It’s really about changing the way people consume food for the rest of their lives.”



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