What shows up on plates at University of Maine System dining halls from Presque Isle to Portland starting in 2016 is likely to include a lot more Maine-grown foods, thanks to the efforts of local food advocates and a receptive board of trustees.
The university system’s $12.5 million annual food contract with Aramark, which has been in effect at six branches for nearly a decade, expires in 2016 and a new one is likely to be signed in March. Seeing that opening, a coalition of Maine farmers, producers and organizations, including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, has been lobbying the University of Maine System to make locally produced foods – not just spinach and produce, but meats and grains, too – a priority at the cafeterias.
The group, which calls itself Maine Food for the UMaine System, has recommended that 20 percent of what ends up on those trays comes from within the state by 2020. The contract feeds students in Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Machias, Presque Isle and at the University of Southern Maine campuses. The main campus, in Orono, operates under a separate contract. Whoever gets the new contract will have to think twice before, say, ordering up potatoes from Idaho.
The University of Maine System board of trustees voted in May to make local foods a priority, although it has not put a number on the table.
“We didn’t set a specific percentage,” said Sam Collins, the board’s chairman. “But it would be wonderful if it was 20 percent. Or more.”
There was, he said, “tremendous support” around the table. “It’s good for the future of Maine farmers and we believe the quality is better. It’s a win-win.”
ORONO LEADS THE WAY
At Orono, the dining service is already known for its commitment to buying locally – 18 percent of the food and beverages served are Maine-sourced, from a network that includes more than two dozen producers. That campus provided meal plans for nearly 4,000 students in the fall of 2014, and the rest of the university system includes nearly 3,000 students on a meal plan. Those numbers don’t include faculty, staff and other students who might eat in university establishments, so the number of people this will affect is likely to be larger. University system officials said they will rely on Orono as a model for how to get more Maine foods in front of Maine students.
The step is a no-brainer for those who live and breathe Maine agriculture.
“Maine’s local foods economy has grown in leaps and bounds over the last decade, which was the last time the University of Maine System signed a food contract,” John Piotti, president of Maine Farmland Trust, said in a news release. “The University of Maine System has a tremendous opportunity in its upcoming food contract to take advantage of, and further catalyze, Maine’s local foods movement.”
Maine Farmland Trust is on the steering committee for Maine Food for the UMaine System. Other members include Farm to Institution New England, Real Food Challenge and Environment Maine. A host of individuals also signed on to the recommendations, including restaurateurs, tofu makers and goat farmers. From potato farmers like the LaJoies of Van Buren to the people behind Northern Girl’s sauces and condiments and Stew Smith of Lakeside Farm (Smith already supplies produce to UMaine and Colby), signatories all asked the university system to reconsider how it buys food.
‘REAL FOOD’ BY 2020
The group’s recommendations, which were submitted to the university system’s Office of Strategic Procurement and the Food Service Request for Proposal Committee, set several main goals, including the establishment of a food working group, transparent tracking of the university’s food plan, and a commitment to a partnership with Maine producers. The recommendations detail suggestions for sustainability expectations, equity and diversity, menu planning, and education and marketing. Also included is a commitment to buying 20 percent “real food” by 2020. “Real food” is defined as food that truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the Earth and may be locally sourced, ecologically sound or humanely produced. The definition already is used to guide food procurement at 193 U.S. colleges and universities.
These priorities certainly seem to be in line with what research has already shown: The university community wants local.
“When I first let people at the university know that we were going out with an RFP, that is probably the first thing I heard,” said Rudy Gabrielson, chief procurement officer for the University of Maine System. “The interest level in sustainability is high.”
But cost is always an issue. “The willingness to pay more for that is pretty tight as well,” Gabrielson said.
SURVEY: WILLING TO PAY MORE?
The university system has done extensive surveying, asking specifically how much more students might be willing to pay for local foods. Gabrielson said the results are still being compiled.
“We want to spend as much money as we can in Maine,” said Dan Demeritt, executive director of public affairs for the University of Maine System. But money remains an object. “We want to get the best deal we can,” he added.
Collins knows a popular perception is that local foods cost more. “That isn’t necessarily the case,” he said. Working with the economies of scale in a system that feeds more than 6,000 people almost year-round gives buying power. But it will be a balancing act to keep farmers, students and the taxpayers who fund the university system happy with any changes.
But for farmers and other suppliers, there’s no question that the change would be welcome. It would develop an established, steady market, one that didn’t depend on a sunny day at the farmers market.
“If the university system made a commitment to spending some of its food dollars locally and partnering with farmers like myself, that could be a game changer,” said Sam Blackstone, a 14th-generation farmer from Caribou whose family began farming in England in the early 1600s.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: