A recent story by Martin Xavi Macias for Truthout describes how a food co-op in Maine, the Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative, is bidding to be the food procurement and service operator for seven of eight University of Maine campuses. If this bid is successful, it will make the co-op the first farm-to-institution food service offering locally sourced food to a university system in the country.
The Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative is in competition with food service giants Aramark (which has held the contract for the past 10 years) and Paris-based Sodexo, Indiana University’s current provider.
That a locally-sourced food co-op is even able to think about competing with the likes of Sodexo on a statewide basis is cause for excitement among sustainable agriculture fans. Not only does it promise to provide Maine’s university community with high quality, nutritious and flavorful foods, it will also offer local farmers and fishermen a consistent demand for their products at predictable prices, which can help to make local foods more affordable for everyone.
But whomever wins the contract, the hope is that the process is leading to greater awareness about the role large, local institutions, like Maine’s university system, can play in helping to develop and support the local agricultural economy, keeping state money in the community.
Over the past year, students in the Maine university system have been organizing through a national initiative called the Real Food Challenge (RFC), a movement aimed at redirecting millions of dollars in food contracts away from industrial providers in favor of local, environmentally responsible sources.
Last Spring, a group of students on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University released their own RFC study. They found that over the 2013-14 fiscal year, IU-B spent over $18 million on food.
The students found that only 5.09 percent of IU-B food expenditures went for what the RFC calls “real” food, or food that meets one or more of the following criteria: local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and/or humane. Almost half of food expenditures (48.7 percent) were disqualified for social, political or public health reasons, like being genetically modified, sourced from CAFOs, or containing high fructose corn syrup.
In their conclusion, the IU-B students wrote: “By putting more money toward local, sustainable food systems, this economic initiative will help grow our local and regional food systems, and increase our options. The current barrier of inadequate local supply will only be mitigated by more circulation of monies...”
These IU students, like their counterparts in Maine, are on to something that could help reinvent Indiana agriculture and, in the process, our state’s image. The local, sustainable food scene is burgeoning here. This creates an opportunity to rebrand Indiana as a destination and source for some of the best edibles in the country.
State agriculture policy needs to encourage and support these changes. It’s time to stop doubling down on industrial ag practices that are environmentally damaging, of dubious nutritional value, and dependent on government subsidies. If an institution has Indiana in its name, it should put Indiana-grown on its table.