In a calendar year, UW Housing purchases nearly 40,000 lbs. of four-ounce hamburger patties. It brings in 17,300 lbs. of plain chicken breasts — just one type of chicken it sells — and more than 63,000 lbs. of lettuce.
Producing food in high volume is a constant challenge that Paul Sprunger, UW-Madison’s executive chef, and his team have to deal with. And finding local vendors who can keep up with the university’s supply and demand is another issue in and of itself. But, in recent years, UW-Madison is making incremental improvements to how much of its food comes from local sources — though it’s important to note that local food does not necessarily equate to better tasting food.
The definition of local food is different depending on whom you might ask. Some schools in Wisconsin consider products that are merely manufactured in the state to be local, meaning that Coca-Cola — a global company with a production plant in Milwaukee — is actually a “local source.” Tom Bryan, a fourth-year PhD student at UW-Madison who studies food systems’ carbon footprint analytics, noted that private businesses have various definitions for local food as some use specific mile ranges to determine if a product is local.
A local purchase for UW Housing is more specific, however, and is defined as one that has ingredients from Wisconsin, is processed in-state and is manufactured in-state.
Such a definition translates into just over 12 percent of UW’s food purchases coming from in-state, according to Angie Erickson, the assistant director of purchasing at UW Housing. That number jumps to 36 percent, however, if you consider products only manufactured in Wisconsin.
The 12 percent figure has remained relatively consistent over that past five to 10 years, Erickson said. But in that time, UW’s definition of “local” has become more concise, removing suppliers like Bagels Forever, which manufactures its products in Madison but gets its ingredients from various places from its local categorization.
In turn, Erickson noted that today, UW’s food is “more truly local” than it was previously.
Consumers often think local foods will taste better. “The thought of the happy cow on the happy pasture flavors the steak,” Bryan cited as a common reason people enjoy local foods. But locality does not always equate to taste. While having prosperous local food systems can boost healthy food access and might lead to a better tasting product, in actuality, many of the more concrete benefits of locally sourcing food are economic.
In 2008, President Barack Obama pledged to promote local food systems because he said they help farmers and ranchers “get full retail price for their food — which means farm families can afford to stay on the farm, doing the important work which they love.” In 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack laid out a five-year strategic plan for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support regional food systems because “increased economic activity in food-related sectors of the economy helps communities build and maintain prosperity.” Strong local food systems also create jobs not only in food production, but in countless related businesses: equipment manufacturing, processing, cold storage facilities, transportation and relations among others.
All of UW Housing’s cheeses come from Wisconsin. And its dairy products come from UW Dairy, located on UW-Madison’s campus. Simple Soyman, a Milwaukee supplier, is its source for tofu and tempeh, and Klondike Cheese Company of Monroe, Wis., is the university’s source for sour cream, feta cheese and yogurt.
“The things that we can do, we are doing,” Erickson said.
There are, however, inherent challenges with trying to serve more local food in university buildings. Sourcing large masses of proteins is difficult, Sprunger said. And suppliers need certain kinds of insurance and transportation technologies to become certified vendors. Safety and product consistency are two other crucial factors that inhibit the amount of local food served from increasing, as are seasonality issues.
Local food also doesn’t necessarily lead to a decreased carbon footprint. Bryan’s research finds that for restaurants and grocery stores, the main carbon footprint impact is in production and not in transportation. Jennifer Meta Robinson and James Robert Farmar, in their book, Local Food Movements Matter, add that environmental benefits of local food can be overstated. For example, winter-lettuce grown in California that is shipped to New York might be more “environmental” than lettuce grown in a heated greenhouse on the east coast.
“Sometimes smaller-scale growing can be less efficient than larger operations,” they wrote.
Sprunger sees his team’s responsibility to source the best and safest products for UW’s students. Sometimes that means bringing in local products, other times it means finding other food sources. No matter their approach, however, they are devising new ways to put more local products on their shelves.
He says that UW is planning to open a small hydroponic farm on campus next fall to try and sustain Four Lakes Market’s salad greens for the upcoming school year. He would also like to see an internal vertical growing system on campus in the future, so that more of UW’s vegetables could be produced in-state — products like cherry tomatoes and broccoli are supplied from Janesville, though the 63,000 pounds of lettuce comes from elsewhere in the U.S.
Thus, UW is making incremental improvements to locally source its food, a continued move in a positive direction. Though one should always consider that local is not the same thing as best — a reality that Sprunger made apparent when discussing UW-Madison’s struggle to find a Wisconsin hamburger to serve to the thousands of hungry students on campus.
“We got one [local purveyor],” Sprunger said. “But it didn’t pass the taste test.”
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