Penn State Kitchens – Buying More Local Food, Supporting More Local Farmers

I sat in on a great meeting last week – a vigorous discussion about what Penn State’s residential dining program is already doing to put local and Pennsylvania-raised food on student plates, and how to build on those successes to support more local farmers and cook more locally grown meals.

The group included:

  • Jim Eisenstein, retired PSU professor, current “unpaid farmhand” at Jade Family Farm (organic CSA), and blogger at WPSU’s Local Food Journey;
  • Laura Young, Market Manager of the 30-vendor North Atherton Farmers Market, farmer at Young American Growers goat & perennial flower farm, blogger at WPSU’s Local Food Journey;
  • Lisa Wandel, Director of Residential Dining at Penn State;
  • Jim Richard, Assistant Director of Residential Dining (South Halls Manager);
  • John Mondock, Director of Purchasing – Buyer for proteins (beef, pork, chicken), staples (beans, grains), dairy and frozen vegetables;
  • Diane Byron Imbruglia, Purchasing Agent – Buyer for fresh fruits and vegetables, and nonfood items (tableware, paper goods, etc.)
  • Erik Foley, Director of the Penn State Campus Sustainability Office;
  • Jeremy Bean, Education Program Associate at the PSU Campus Sustainability Office

Upshot? There’s a lot of potential to build a very strong local food system around the university, and the foundations are already in place, making it much easier to set up a virtuous circle.

Farmers who sell some of their available produce at good market prices to a reliable year-round buyer gain a new stream of stable income; vendors are generally paid within two weeks of billing the residential dining purchasing office.

Steady income supports farmer efforts to grow more food, build season extension structures like hoop houses and greenhouses, and build up the market for local food.

Penn State gets an increasingly resilient local supply of food for the kitchens, plus more opportunities for students to get to know the farmers growing their food.

And the symbiosis opens up more opportunities for old-farmer conservation and new-farmer cultivation through mentoring relationships.

The key to success (paraphrasing Jim Richard) is developing stable, symbiotic, trusting relationships between farmers, Penn State food buyers and possibly local farm consortium organizers.

Main Points:

1) At Penn State, Diane, John, Jim and Lisa have already done a lot of the work to clear away hurdles for local farmers interested in selling food to Penn State. They’re extremely enthusiastic about working through remaining hurdles, and – as an auxiliary organization fully funded by students enrolled in meal plans – they have the administrative flexibility to do it, by adapting menus to match seasonal supplies and helping farmers coordinate regulatory compliance on things like food-grade packaging, closed-vehicle transportation and product traceability.

2) Penn State buys a lot of food, and orders go out to bid twice a week for Tuesday and Friday deliveries. So even though menus are planned months in advance, they can be changed on the fly to deal with the inevitable variability in farming weather and production – to use up bumper crops at risk of rottting in the field if not eaten quickly, and to substitute other foods when field conditions delay or ruin local crops.

3) The purchasing system can absorb very small lots into the supply stream. For example, Penn State dining hall customers eat – on average, about 4,200 pounds of tomatoes each week. If a local farmer has 100 pounds of tomatoes to sell in a given week, he or she can contact Diane to supply those 100 pounds, and Diane can buy the 100 pounds and order the rest of the tomatoes from other local farms or suppliers outside the area. (Diane said size standards for tomatoes are more rigid than for other produce – tomatoes have to be the right size for the slicers in the kitchens, and packaged in easily stackable boxes for efficient inventory storage & stock rotation. Size standards for other foods are much more flexible.)

4) Farmers’ market managers are already in a good position to gather and funnel information about crop status and seasonal production trends to Penn State buyers, to guide menu planning week by week. And Penn State buyers and chefs are already interested in working with individual farmers to build crop calendars guiding seasonal menus, and even incorporate food preservation and pickling into meal planning to help the local food supply last long after the central Pennsylvania growing season.

5) Many farms that already participate in area farmers markets already have the insurance coverage required to comply with Penn State’s standards.

6) The Campus Sustainability Office stands ready to facilitate as needed with meeting arrangements, policy drafting, etc.

7) The enormous size of the Penn State dining services market and buying power paradoxically means farmers committed to diversified, sustainable crop management don’t have to monocrop. Small producers can sell the university a small fraction of the supply needed by the Penn State kitchens – whatever those local farmers aren’t selling to their current customer base – and Penn State can purchase the rest from other sources while creating systemic incentives for small farms to continue expanding local capacity.

Current Local Food Buying at Penn State

[Revised 1/17/12 based on corrections from John Mondock]

PA-produced items account for 13.7% of total food service purchases. 16% of total purchases are counted as “local” and “green,” including compostable and recyclable non-food items which are not necessarily PA-produced. Currently, about 0.3% of the food purchased for the dining halls is Pennsylvania-grown fresh produce.

During bidding rounds twice each week, vendors can supply two bids for each item – one out-of-state price, one in-state price – and the buyers have the budget flexibility to preferentially choose Pennsylvania products, giving vendors incentive to source food in-state.

Through a partnership between Café Laura, students in the Hotel, Restaurant & Institutional Management 430 class, and a fertile 2-acre garden at Penn State’s Rock Springs horticulture facilities, Penn State students, faculty and staff coordinate crop production, delivery and preparation for on-campus meals. The program was developed and implemented by Dave Cranage and Scott King. During the peak summer growing season, residential dining staffers reach out to the Café Laura/Horticulture Farm program to buy surplus produce and build menus around those ingredients.

The residential dining staff also sets up special dining hall events every semester, featuring Tait Farm, Harner Farm and other local producers.

Buying More Local Food – Obstacles and Opportunities

One of our major hurdles is finding potential local vendors,” John Mondock said. “We are certainly willing to meet with any and all vendors that may have questions or want to gain more knowledge about Housing and Food Services and our needs. We are willing to work individually with any vendor to develop a good working relationship.”

For the local farming community, Penn State standing ready to buy as few as 20 pounds of produce at a time from a single farm is “huge,”  Laura Young said. “That’s so easy to step into.”

Lisa Wandel said she’d love to see a local farmers’ consortium created, to handle insurance, bidding, refrigerated storage, inventory control and transportation to the dining halls, allowing farmers to keep their main focus and time allocation on farming, and make deliveries at their convenience to a single central location.

Young said that might be a good project for the students in the Penn State Community Food Security Club: writing grants to create a food hub organization that could aggregate food from many small farms and organize it for sale to Penn State dining halls.

And, Jim Eisenstein pointed out, there’s already a good regional model for structuring such a farm consortium: Tuscarora Organic Growers based in the Juniata Valley, with 20+ years of experience coordinating production, packaging, inspections and distribution for local organic farms supplying regional restaurants here and in the Washington DC area.

In the meantime, buyers at the university are more than happy to set up arrangements so individual farmers can make small batch deliveries to a single dining hall.

If you’re an interested farmer, reach out to them. They’re eager to work with you.

Useful Information for Farmers Interested in Selling to Penn State:

Contact Information

  • Diane Imbruglia – 865-6386;
  • John Mondock – 865-6386;
  • Jim Richard – 865-7677;
  • Lisa Wandel – 863-1255;

Penn State’s Standards for Products of Pennsylvania:

  • Call John Mondock for more information. (But if you raise fresh produce or livestock in Pennsylvania, you probably qualify.)

Insurance policies must include:

  • Indemnification;
  • Commercial General Liability insurance not less than $1,000,000 per occurrence, listing The University as an Additional Insured
  • Automobile Liability insurance not less than $500,000 per accident
  • Statutory Workers’ Compensation in accordance with governing law (or qualify as a self-insurer), and $500,000 per accident of Employers’ Liability insurance.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Penn State Kitchens – Buying More Local Food, Supporting More Local Farmers

  1. Sarah Potter says:

    So Interesting! I feel like the ball is rolling in so many corners of our community. Thanks for keeping us connected and updated with all the news so that the connections keep growing and the momentum rolling.

  2. Pingback: Worm Composting, Fast-Response Crop Pickers & More « Spring Creek Homesteading

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s