By Mindy Hermann, RN
The start of the school year brings new demands on university foodservice and suppliers, including pressure to supply more organic produce. College students in some regions may even come to campus with a physician’s “prescription” for foods that are organic and free of pesticides and waxes. Although not typical or widespread, voices for steady supplies of organic fresh fruits and vegetables have become louder.
For Sodexo, an international food services and facilities management company, the most vocal requests for organic come from college campuses. Still, the company’s total spend on certified organic produce is quite small.
“The amount of discussion about organic on some campuses makes the trend seem more pervasive than it really is,” said Kenny Lipsman, director, supply management – produce, Sodexo, Gaithersburg, MD. “Although organic is a small piece of our business, we contract directly with distributors who can supply everything – conventional, organic, and local. Local, however, is a higher percentage of our spend. It has a similar halo to organic and is easier to identify and promote. Organic is very specific and students may not be clear on what it is and what the benefits are.”
Students at the University of Minnesota have been particularly proactive. Jamie Freier, a recent graduate of the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, worked with a team of fellow students to encourage a resolution by the University Student Senate against its foodservice supplier for poor quality, high cost, and lack of specialty food items, including organic. The resolution, passed in March 2017, held the foodservice supplier accountable for business ethics concerns and lack of dietary accommodations.
Quintin L. Eason, Compass regional executive chef, mid central region, sees similar interest in organic produce at his home base at Missouri State University. He notes, however, that lines are somewhat blurred among organic, local, and healthy, with local resonating with students more than organic.
“Students want to know where we are sourcing from, with local being particularly important to them. This is challenging, however, because it’s hard for us to contract locally for year-round supply at a reasonable cost. That’s why we often focus on health and safety rather than local and organic.
The importance of educating students about fruits and vegetables cannot be underestimated. Eason manages student expectations by using LTOs to let them know which items are seasonal, what is coming up in the next month, and which items are fading out. He drafts menus based on seasonality as much as possible but takes into consideration that students may want non-local and out-of-season items such as cantaloupe and pineapple year round.
Both Eason and Lipsman recognize the appeal of farmers. Eason invites local farmers to bring their crops for cooking demos for students. Lipsman’s distributors typically establish and manage strong relationships with farmers.
“The landscape is changing and it is not going back,” said Eason. “We are thinking smaller for sourcing and are trying to shrink our supply lines to 250 miles so that we can inject resources into that radius. We get a sense of well-being from helping farmers who in turn support us.”
Some campuses have active agriculture programs that supplement supply from their foodservice provider. The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) grows 130 different organic crops on a 5 1/2 acre farm at the University of Minnesota. The university’s foodservice provider integrates those crops, which go through its food safety system, into menus across campus.
“Many times we are asked to weave campus-grown agricultural products into our offer but we can’t always do it,” said Lipsman. “We have to ensure that any scenario meets our standards for quality assurance and food safety. Packing and shipping, even across campus, have to be controlled and items have to be processed and packaged at a USDA facility.”
Not all areas of the country are equally attracted to organic and local. Mindy Kae Diller, MS, RDN, LD, hospitality services dietitian, Texas Tech University, sees some demand for organic and local but “we have extremely limited availability and procurement, “she said. “Getting students to buy fresh produce of any type is a challenge and providing organic over traditionally grown options does not appear to make a difference. Organic appeals only to a somewhat small population of students who come from bigger areas with more diverse growing options.”
“At the end of the day it’s all about flavor and deliciousness,” said Freier. “We want to have a genuine conversation and relationship so that students can get the food that they want.”