UMass is on a mission to change the way we eat
The school’s dining staff aims to become a national model for affordable, high-volume sourcing of locally grown food.
By Kathleen Kingsbury
Each day, 18,000 students, faculty, staff, and visitors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus eat around 50,000 meals. That’s some 6 million meals per year and $85 million in revenue, making it the nation’s largest university foodservice program.
The school’s dining staff, however, is on a grander mission than just meeting demand: to become a national model for affordable, high-volume sourcing of locally grown food. It renovated one of its four dining halls, Hampshire Dining Commons, as a testing ground for this effort and, this fall, will release a how-to guide for other institutions looking to do the same.
Ken Toong heads up the initiative. Ideas recently spoke with Toong and his colleagues, Garett Distefano, director of residential dining, and Rachel Dutton, manager of sustainability, by telephone. Below is an edited excerpt.
IDEAS: A lot has been written about how young people are taking a more active and informed approach to what they eat. How does that translate on campus?
TOONG: Things have changed dramatically in the 16 years since I’ve been at UMass. The difference between us and a restaurant is that we are serving the same customers, our students, several times a day. We have to listen closely. Students now demand food that tastes good and is good for them but also supports the environment. They care deeply about animal welfare. They want us to ensure what we do supports the local and regional economy.
DISTEFANO: We survey students a couple of times a year. We send out 4,000 surveys, and we receive roughly a 40 percent response rate, year after year. In terms of trends, we definitely see students eating more fruits and vegetables. Students are also asking for more plant-based proteins. Thirty-five percent say they eat less red meat since they started at UMass. Eighty-six percent want healthier beverages.
Students are also more mindful about what they’re eating. “Local” to students means that the food is tied back to the community, but 72.5 percent say it is healthier as well. They want traceability, they want it closer to them, they want a story behind it.
IDEAS: You’ve increased your procurement of local food to more than $1 million annually. How does your system work?
TOONG: Ten or 12 years ago, like everyone else, we were buying mostly from the typical conventional food distributors. We said to ourselves, this is not enough, we should be able to do better. For every product we purchased, we started to ask, can we buy this locally instead?
We began to focus on culinary excellence, hiring an executive chef and inviting in several guest chefs, locally and nationally, to enhance our program. Then we partnered with [local farmer] Joe Czajkowski, who acts as an aggregator (or broker) for our suppliers, other local farms, connecting us to 16 or 20 farmers. We even started crop planning prior to the growing season, so they grow what we use.
DISTEFANO: Obviously, New England’s seasons determine a lot of our growing season, although you’d be surprised, sometimes we still get fresh tomatoes into November around here. But by December, January, February, March, things get a little tight, so we utilize a process called individual quick freezing. We’ll get six to eight thousand pounds of strawberries and blueberries and freeze them and use them in our baked goods the whole winter. We also do menu engineering so we can best utilize root vegetables, for instance, during colder months.
We’ve partnered with local protein farmers to simplify the supply chain. We order primal cuts of beef or pork and process them on our end. We grind our own meat, breaking down large cuts, and in doing so, the cost goes down, and engagement from the culinary standpoint goes up.
DUTTON: We also source whole chickens, rather than pieces, which we rotisserie cook and carve.
TOONG: Working with Joe lets us receive deliveries every day, and we quickly incorporate whatever surplus he has. If he calls to say that he has extra asparagus or brussels sprouts, we will have it on our menu that afternoon or the next morning.
IDEAS: How does this intersect with ideas of sustainability?
DUTTON: UMass Auxiliary Enterprises has its own sustainability department, which means we have four full-time employees dedicated to increasing sustainable practices for residential and retail dining services.
DISTEFANO: Seafood is a good example. All the seafood we source here is sustainable, such as salmon and cod. We’ve also, however, started to work with local fisherman to use underutilized fish. That is, buying fish that would otherwise be considered bycatch and never brought to market. So, for instance, redfish or pollock. We’re introducing students to these fish in order to make them more acceptable and mainstream.
The average UMass student consumes about 21 pounds of fish per year compared to just 14 pounds by the average American. So we’re influencing healthy eating but also doing it economically because the cost of underutilized fish is significantly less than other meat proteins. And we’re stimulating the market by purchasing seafood that otherwise isn’t used.
IDEAS: Is buying locally more expensive?
TOONG: Not necessarily. We’ve found local vegetables, for instance, are cheaper or at least very competitive compared to produce that comes from much farther away. Sometimes it is all about making the right connections with farmers, eliminating the middlemen, to keep costs down.
DISTEFANO: We are able to demystify [that notion] with facts. Fact is, at our beta testing site, the Hampshire Dining Hall, food costs went down 3.5 percent last year, and have continued to fall year-over-year by increasing the amount of our local sourcing, increasing the amount of lean protein we offer, and increasing healthiness overall. Secondly, guest satisfaction went up. Students are saying they want us to do even more. Third, our survey results suggest even student performance is being influenced by the type of food we serve. Students who eat more healthful foods are reporting that they are getting better grades and feeling better about themselves.
IDEAS: Can other institutions follow your lead? Is it scalable?
TOONG: We’re starting to exert influence around the region. We work with other colleges, K-12 schools, even some hospitals to share best practices. The more that large institutions work together to request local products, the more suppliers will respond and make them available. Prices will continue to come down with volume purchasing.
Our larger mission is to work with our peers, regionally and nationally, to raise the bar in campus dining. We are fortunate to be surrounded by farmland. We have a vibrant New England food system, let’s take advantage of that.
Kathleen Kingsbury can be reached at email@example.com
Clarification: A previous version of this story should have made clear that the total number of meals served to students, faculty, staff, and visitors does not not reflect the entire population of the campus.