CU dining services constrained from going local



Dining services at the University of Colorado Boulder is attempting to increase the percentage of local food served in on-campus dining halls. However, the rules and regulations involved in the process are hindering localization efforts.

According to Lauren Heising, coordinator for sustainable dining at CU, around 15 percent of the products served in campus dining halls or retail locations are local. This percentage includes milk from Robinson Dairy, burritos from EVOL, bakery items from Breadworks, produce from local farms and Boulder Ice Cream. By 2012, dining services hopes to have 20 percent of its total products be local.

Fresh off the heels of “Best in Show” and “Best New Facility” awards from Food Management magazine, dining services is feeling the pressure to up their game.

“The recognition we have gotten in the past year has, I think, motivated us more than ever,” says Amy Beckstrom, director of dining services. “When you have that much awareness, you recognize the responsibility of managing your food well.”

Dining services is hoping to use this motivation to go beyond its admirable efforts toward sustainability in its Center for Community (C4C) dining hall, like the creation of allergen-free zones and the use of natural, organic and kosher-certified products.

“We’ve been redefining the way we do dining,” says Kerry Paterson, the executive chef at the C4C. “Now we’re trying to increase organic and natural wherever we can, and continue to do local.”

The local efforts are, as Paterson puts it, very difficult. Paterson estimates that the C4C alone serves more than 6,500 meals and uses about a ton of vegetables and 600 pounds of sliced meats and cheeses per day.

“A lot of local producers can’t handle our volume,” says Beckstrom. “To plug in a local meat company for 50 pounds, how do we do that? We need 50,000 pounds.”

One solution for the supply and demand issue has been to serve local products, like granola bars, chips and ice cream, in the retail stores throughout campus. However, dining services is facing more than quantity problems in their efforts to use local food.

With the food purchasing requirements used by CU dining services, vendors must meet several criteria, including insurance, food safety, quality and quantity.

“The rules and regulations are there for a reason,” says Heising. “We need to use legitimate companies with all the correct licenses, because food safety is a real concern.”

Local farms often struggle to meet these rules and regulations, or are reluctant to work with a large facility like CU. For instance, despite recent approval to use four local farms for produce, only one has successfully worked for dining services.

According to Heising, the farmers currently working with dining services are looking to have several angles to their business by continuing to work in smaller-scale venues, like the farmers’ markets, but supplementing it by maintaining dining services as a more constant wholesale customer.

Surprisingly, cost has not been an issue with the go-local efforts. According to Beckstrom, if a local or organic product is more expensive than the alternative, but will add significant value, dining services incorporates the product within their budget and seeks to cut costs elsewhere.

The biggest hurdle faced with the incorporation of local products is, according to Beckstrom, plugging them in to the existing distribution chain.

“We have a primary vendor who supplies about 80 percent of our food,” says Beckstrom. “The local vendors can beautifully supplement our dining program, but the logistics of working with the larger distributor gets complicated for the smaller companies.”

Despite the many logistical problems surrounding the use of local products, dining services is continuing to make the effort with an “every problem has a solution” attitude.

According to Heising, the team will continue to seek partnerships with local farmers, but will likely expand beyond Boulder County and into Northern Colorado, where there are larger producers.

“The smaller farms are often either scared to work with us or concerned about regulations or are not able to deliver on a scheduled basis or may not have the product that we need,” says Heising.

By seeking the larger farms within Colorado, dining services hopes to achieve the demand for local products while avoiding some of the logistical problems previously met.

CU dining services is keeping the use of local products high on their list of priorities, along with increasing the prevalence of organic, natural and sustainable foods.

After all, as Beckstrom says, “We’re Boulder’s dining services, for goodness sake.”