The College Food Project: UW-Madison Case Study
Posted July 2001
There are two separate food service operations at UW-Madison, and both are involved in buying farmer-direct and organic foods. The UW-Madison Housing Food Service has brought local and organic foods to their dining centers, carryout operations, and convenience stores on campus. The UW-Madison Memorial Union has made local and organic food part of several catered events, and is now planning to create a special menu option for customers who want to order locally grown and organic meals.
Farmer cooperatives and other alternative distributors got much more involved in supplying food to UW-Madison in 2000-2001. Home Grown Wisconsin, Wisconsin Pasturelands, Organic Valley, and North Farm Cooperative all supplied food. Food service purchasers found that ordering from these brokers saved them time compared to working with individual farmers.
The UW-Madison Housing Food Service serves about 15,000 meals a day, mostly to students who live in the residence halls on campus. In December of 2000, UW-Madison became the first major public university in the U.S. to commit to putting foods grown on local farms on the regular menu at their dorm dining centers. As of April 2001, the UW-Madison Housing Food Service is serving Wisconsin-grown apples, organic blue corn chips, and organic potatoes every week. They also have many organic foods from outside of Wisconsin on the regular menu. Several times a year, Housing Food Service organizes special events in the dorm dining centers that feature locally-raised and organic foods.
Housing Food Service main page:
Purchasing page, contracts:
What made it possible?
The University Housing Food Service administrators are very supportive of buying food directly from farmers. The administrators have added a lot of work to their already-busy schedules to serve this food. Why? Demand has been one reason. Catering customers, students, and others on campus have made many requests for farm-direct and organic food on the menu. CIAS has helped to make connections between local farmers and the food service as an informal broker.
How did it get started?
Farmer-direct buying got started at Housing Food Service in the mid-1990s. In contrast to other colleges, where students led the push for local, organic foods, UW-Madison’s faculty and staff initiated local buying. The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems [CIAS] took the lead by requesting local, sustainable catering in1996 and has continued this work with help from a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education [SARE] grant.
CIAS began to introduce local, organic foods into special events in 1994 with a Dean’s Board of Visitors Meeting and a national gathering of Extension Deans. CIAS staff worked with food service administrators and chefs to develop a menu around local, sustainably-produced foods. They also put together provocative menus of food system issues. These menus addressed topics such as energy use, food security, sustainable agriculture, and the economic development potential associated with local food systems. The Power Eater’s Guide was one of these educational materials. The efforts were called “consciousness catering.” For these early events, CIAS collaborated with the Madison chapter of Chefs’ Collaborative 2000, a national organization promoting sustainable agriculture and local, seasonal foods.
A Regional, Seasonal Foods Banquet
In 1997, CIAS hosted the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Conference. Part of this national gathering was a Regional, Seasonal Food Banquet. This remarkable, cooperative event marked CIAS’s first real encounter with the UW food service. Bob Fessenden, top administrator of the Housing Food Service, enthusiastically supported this event, and has since become the champion of farm-direct and sustainably produced food on campus. He had received student requests for organic food and saw the Regional, Seasonal Food Banquet as a learning opportunity. The banquet brought together local chefs associated with Chefs’ Collaborative 2000, local farms, two local farm cooperatives, and the University’s dining hall staff and facilities. The chefs worked with the food service to prepare the meal. The most important outcome of this banquet was the establishment of relationships between the food service administrators and the local farmers. The UW cooks and administrators were very impressed with the quality of foods from the local farms.
Home Grown Wisconsin Organic Meal
Prior to the Regional, Seasonal Food Banquet, students had requested organic food from the University dining halls. The dining halls geared up to respond to those requests in the fall of 1997. Because the conference banquet stressed the importance of local food — not just organic — the food service organized a meal that was largely local and seasonal. The event was such a success that the food service decided to make it an annual event, and perhaps purchase local and/or organic items on a more regular basis. The food service administrators were provided with a list of local organic growers and marketing cooperatives providing meat, vegetables, and dairy products.
Over the ensuing years, the Center has primarily helped the food service find local farmers. The Center has prepared table tents and take-home “Power Eater’s Guide,” “Meal Tickets” and “Price Tags/Cost Tags.” These publications were designed to make students more aware of their power to support local farms and build demand for local food on the dining halls menu. Bob Fessenden has told us many times, “If the students buy it, I will put it on the cafeteria line.” As we will discuss later, there are obstacles other than limited student demand that stand in the way of increasing the organic, locally-grown food choices in the cafeterias.
How is it working now?
In the last few years, the staff and administration of the Housing Food Service have taken many steps towards buying and serving more local and sustainably-produced foods. They have worked on planning menus, ordering foods, publicizing, and helping the kitchen staff prepare delicious local and organic meals. Between 1996 and 2001, the cafeterias have presented twenty of these special meals, including two planned and prepared by award-winning local chef Odessa Piper.
Currently, three items that come directly from Wisconsin farms are regularly available in the campus residence hall dining centers and convenience stores. These items are tortilla chips made from organic blue corn grown in Janesville, apples grown in Richland Center, and organic potatoes from Antigo. Many other non-local organic options are available in the convenience stores.
Early in the fall of the 2001 semester, each of the dining centers served a dinner that featured organic and locally grown food. Menus were designed around what local farmers could provide. The dinners featured organic meat, dairy, and late summer produce such as carrots, potatoes, celery, apples, watermelon, cabbage, and onions. Students’ reactions varied widely. For many students, these dinners were their first encounters with organic, locally-grown food. Many were enthusiastic about this concept; some wondered out loud why the cafeteria wouldn’t always offer organic choices.
Costs, Labor, and Sources
UW Housing Food Service Director Bob Fessenden led a workshop with the College Food Project in September 2000. Quotes from his presentation are included below. Fessenden estimates that Housing Food Service in 2000 spent about $40,000 a year on organic products, including soy milk, rice milk, salad mixes, and frozen dinners. This figure will be considerably higher in 2001, with about 20 new farm-direct or items on the regular menu.
Often the prices of locally grown and organic items are comparable or cheaper than their conventional counterparts from distributors. Sometimes they are more expensive. But labor to process farm-direct food can drive up the overall expense of serving it. Labor is a challenge for the food service because the labor market is very tight in Madison. This is complicated by the fact that the UW system statewide puts caps on the salaries that can be paid to workers within certain job descriptions. This means that ordering pre-processed fresh vegetables is more cost-effective in Madison than buying whole produce directly from farms. In contrast, food service administrators pay less for kitchen staff at other colleges and UW campuses where local economies are more depressed. This is why Northland College, discussed in another case study, can afford to buy farm-direct organic carrots and have kitchen staff peel them.
When the prices for organic or local items are higher than the prices of their conventional counterparts, Housing Food Service charges more for them. Fessenden explains the flexibility that their a la carte meal plan gives them:
“We set the price based on what we paid for it. So if we provide an organic item, we will charge what that cost us. So that allows us a lot of freedom being able to offer most anything that the customer wants… Students are more concerned with what they want than what it costs. We find they seldom balk at prices, so that helps.”
The bidding processes and vendor requirements to sell to UW campuses can be complicated and difficult for small farmers. (See Research Brief 55 for more information.)
The first few special meals featuring locally grown and sustainably-grown foods at the dining centers were difficult to pull off. Fessenden says that finding sources for locally grown and organic foods was, and continues to be, a challenge.
“We have had our ups and downs. We started out trying to do these special local organic meals in all four of our dining centers. That was a big mistake. It just about killed us and our vendors who were trying to provide us with food. Now we’re doing it smaller, one cafeteria at a time. That works better, and we can get enough product in. … Finding enough sources is hard for us. We have built some of these bridges though. We have to go to 4 different people to get a product. I am hoping that as years go by that more people will get into processing.”
UW-Madison’s special meals on campus have been educational for several different audiences. First and foremost, the dinners teach students who normally eat at the dining centers about locally grown, organic, and other sustainable foods. Flyers and labeling of the foods served help to educate them. Fran Johnson, publicist in Housing Food Service, created a series of beautiful and informative flyers, table tents, and point-of-sale labels for each item served at the special meals.
Many farmers who have supplied foods for the special meals have also come to talk with students, dining center administrators, and others. During our April 2001 dinner, farmers staffed an educational display table where the cafeteria line formed. This worked well, since each student who came in saw the big, colorful display. Students could talk with the farmers and each other about sustainable and organic agriculture while they waited in line. But during the fall 2001 dinners, educational efforts were even more effective. Student interns and CIAS staff offered samples of organic vegetables grown in the student garden on campus, and talked with students while they waited in line. Many students came from families where they had eaten organic food, many others were from farm backgrounds, and almost all wanted to learn more about local, sustainable eating.
Press response to the meals has been fantastic, and the resulting coverage has helped educate the public at large about the benefits of local, sustainable eating. Many reporters have come to the meals, interviewed involved farmers, food service staff, and students, then written about the dinners.
The meals also serve as opportunities to educate and inform dining center administrators and staff. Fessenden sees education of his staff as a vital step in the process of bringing local food to campus dining centers:
“The key is getting your staff turned on to it. People at first said, “Urgh, I have to deal with that?” But then they saw the quality of the products. Also, bringing in local talent– chefs from local restaurants to come in and help prepare these products–really helped.”
During the summer of 2001, administrators from UW Housing Food Service joined chefs from Chicago and Madison on a bus tour of 4 local organic farms. This was organized by CIAS in collaboration with Home Grown Wisconsin.
Memorial Union main page:
In July of 2001, in part inspired by the Housing Food Service’s efforts, the Memorial Union pulled off its first major, catered event featuring locally grown and organic food. They planned menus, ordered food, and cooked four locally grown and mostly organic meals for 1,000 guests at the Plant-Microbe Interactions International Congress. Four farmer cooperatives that represent hundreds of farmers supplied much of the food, and another seven individual farmers supplied food directly.
Based on the success of the locally grown and organic meals at the conference, and because of requests from other catering customers for the same type of menu, the Memorial Union decided in late July to create a section of their menu devoted entirely to locally grown and organic food. Four key brokers have been chosen by the Union to work between Wisconsin farmers and the Union. As the Union develops its new catering menu, a series of meals will be developed based on what farmers can provide throughout each part of the growing season. Since the Union does an enormous amount of conference catering during the summer, vegetable and fruit growers will be able to supply a wide variety of fresh produce.