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Monday, June 24, 2024
Dining hall food tray

The journey of a carrot: UW-Madison’s food acquisition process, from soil to plate

UW-Madison emphasizes the challenges of local sourcing, navigating state procurement policies and the logistical hurdles of bringing fresh, local food to student dining halls.

When you put a carrot on your plate at the dining hall, have you ever stopped to think about the journey it took to get there? 

Securing that carrot — or any food product sold to students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — is more complex than signing a contract with a Wisconsin farm. Procurement at the university is fraught with unexpected challenges for the university and the local farmer. 

Carl Korz and Peter Testory are the directors of dining at the Wisconsin Union and University Housing, respectively. Korz and Testory said the university is mandated by state law to utilize a prime vendor contract with its distributor, US Foods. 

For local farmers, this means they are unlikely to land a direct contract with the university and instead often work through the distributor. 

"We [the Union and Housing] have separate operations, but we work together on joint key purchasing areas, specifically the prime vendor contract," Korz said. 

The prime vendor contract provides 80% of the food products for the university. The remaining 20% is purchased at the university's discretion. 

Typically, local farmers do not deal directly with the university at all, even if their farm’s products are purchased using the discretionary 20%. Instead, a Milwaukee-based produce house may be utilized to source fresh produce from various small local farms. 

Korz and Testory explained that the university utilizes the prime vendor contract to ensure price stability and consistent product availability, which it sees as especially necessary given inflation and supply chain disruptions. The agreement prioritizes cost-effectiveness and constant market supply, said Testory and Korz, ensuring students can access nutritious food products daily. 

Local sourcing is challenging, Testory said, in part because "Wisconsin's growing season and our academic year don't always necessarily align." For example, local carrots must be in season to reach a student’s plate. 

Once that in-season carrot is plucked, it must go from its earthly state into a clean, appetizing carrot ready to be dipped into ranch. This presents another local sourcing obstacle. 

Korz said many small farms don't offer processing, meaning their vegetables come in raw and uncut, fresh from the field. Local producers who choose to outsource processing often see lower profit margins.

“It takes a lot of time and [food] waste to process that,” he said.

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In addition to being dirt-free,  university-acquired produce may also be certified with Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), although this step is not required, explained business services[---] procurement manager David Brinkmeier. GAP certification minimizes risks of microbial food safety hazards, such as pest infestation. 

The university takes additional steps to learn about the food safety features of each of its vendors, Testory said. 

"We'll visit their warehouses, we'll visit their fields, especially if it's a company we've never done business with, just to make sure that we feel safe conducting business," Testory added. 

The university's vetting process continues beyond food safety to comprehensive assessments of supplier operations and ethics standards. 

"We put a lot of effort into the manufacturers and the vendors that we do business with,” Testory said. “We look at them from a quality standpoint, a clean ingredient standpoint, a social ethic standpoint, treatment of workers, treatment of animals — we make sure that all those things align with our core values before doing business with them.”

Before reaching the university, produce must also be inspected, packaged and transported in compliance with USDA regulations. 

All parties involved in that carrot’s delivery, from local farmers to third-party services, must carry a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance, automobile insurance for campus access, and workers' compensation insurance, Brinkmeier told the Cardinal. These insurance requirements are rarely barriers for local farmers. 

Produce can't be delivered in a cooler from the back of a pickup truck, either. USDA guidelines require delivery temperatures for carrots be between 32 degrees and 38 degrees Fahrenheit).

After delivering the carrots, the farmers need to get paid. But the farmer might not be paid immediately because of UW-Madison’s size and who it serves, Brinkmeier said. 

Accounts payable may legally take up to thirty days to pay the farmer's invoice but average 22 days, Brinkmeier said. Additionally, the university rarely commits to purchasing fixed quantities because demand fluctuates with changing student preferences. 

Local farmers often want security or assurance and typically seek to have their entire product sold before it is even harvested, Brinkmeier said

How about the ranch we dip carrots in? The Wisconsin Union has its own homemade ranch made from Wisconsin milk products. 

But America’s Dairyland is facing challenges, after seeing nearly a quarter of its dairy farms shutter in the last five years, according to PBS NewsHour

A large portion of dairy comes from UW-Madison’s Babcock Dairy, and the university requires that all cheese supplied by US Foods must be from the state of Wisconsin. Sliced cheese, for example, is sourced from Monroe, while yogurt and sour cream come from brands like Odyssey and Klondike Cheese Co., also located in Green County. 

The university's supply of scooped hard-pack ice cream is made at Babcock using milk from the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant and from Middleton-based Foremost Farms, a dairy co-op, as necessary, Brinkmeier said. 

"When we look at our dairy category, just about every item is from the state of Wisconsin," Testory said.

The university’s partnerships with large national distributors, like US Foods, have operational efficiency in mind. However, in working to source the local carrot, the university aims to support local farmers and their communities, with the ultimate goal of contributing to the sustainability of Wisconsin’s agriculture sector.

It’s a give-and-take of supplier and cost constraints to get carrots and ranch from farm to fork, but Testory said, “if we could buy local everything, that’s always the number one choice, farm or producer.” 

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