By SCOTT MERZBACH – Monday, January 13, 2014 in Daily Hampshire Gazette
AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts is amping up efforts to rely on locally produced food with the Real Food Challenge, a national movement pushing colleges to adopt more sustainable food practices, and a two-year grant from a Boston-based foundation.
The Real Food Challenge at UMass has set a goal of ensuring 20 percent of all food served at UMass is “real food” by 2020. “Real food” is defined as food that is grown locally and regionally, is organic, and is sustainably grown, humanely raised and produced with fair trade principles.
Participation in the challenge received boost this fall when UMass snagged a two-year, $485,000 grant from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation of Boston, which aims to make contributions toward creating “a resilient and healthy food system in New England that increases the production and consumption of local, sustainably produced food.”
“We’re hoping this grant will be a catalyst for progress to this goal over the next couple of years,” said Rachel Dutton, sustainability manager for auxiliary services at UMass.
The commitment to this national challenge was signed by Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy last spring. Students taught by John Gerber, a professor and coordinator of the Sustainable Food and Farming Program, had spent two years advocating for it and lobbying for support from Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at UMass.
“To have UMass doing this is pretty incredible,” Gerber said. He noted that most of the other 18 colleges and universities that have signed into the commitment are much smaller.
More than 360 other colleges and universities, including Smith, Amherst, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke colleges, are also considered participants in the initiative.
Founded in Cambridge in 2008, the Real Food Challenge describes itself as “a national, student-driven campaign to reshape our food economy.”
Gerber said the real food movement is good for the local economy and generates awareness among students about where their food comes from. It also offers additional incentives for local farmers to provide food to UMass.
Toong said the university’s location in the heart of a region rich with small farms, and its roots as an agricultural school, make efforts to purchase more local produce and offer healthier options for students a compelling initiative for UMass.
“Each year we are buying more and more local food,” he said.
He noted that in 2013, almost 30 percent of the produce used in the four dining commons and other campus dining areas came from local sources, including both area farms and, to a lesser degree, the campus permaculture gardens.
Toong said he wants to continue to innovate and focus on serving sustainable and healthy food to the more than 17,000 students on the meal plan.
UMass is the second largest on-campus dining program in the country.
Still, Toong said, its diners have discriminating palates. “Everyone wants to know what is in the food,” he said.
Dutton said Hampshire Dining Commons is being used as a sort of testing ground for the Real Food Challenge. The idea is to increase the amount of local food served and figure out which sustainable practices work and which don’t.
“We use our own dining commons for creative ways to source more local foods,” Dutton said.
The grant will also be used to both organize and participate in conferences with other colleges and universities.
Dutton said the food served will be evaluated on its health value as well as cost effectiveness, as UMass tries to create a model for other schools and build partnerships with them.
Toong said serving more local and healthy food is aligned with the university’s mission of promoting healthy living, and he noted that higher-quality food could attract students to campus and keep them on the meal plan even when they move off campus.
Meanwhile, UMass dining services must be doing something right, as UMass continues to earn plaudits for the cuisine its students are served.
A website that provides event listings at colleges across the country recently gave UMass high marks for its on-campus food.
When University Primetime unveiled its best 50 college dining experiences, UMass was ranked No. 1 based on opinions from students who eat at the four campus dining commons.
“By surveying students at each university, we came to the conclusion that UMass had the highest amount of votes of students who liked food, rating Berkshire (Dining Commons) the number one dining hall in the country,” according to University Primetime.
Toong said the ranking reflects well on efforts to make UMass a model dining destination.
“We’re delighted and thrilled and this gives us inspiration to serve our customers even better,” Toong said.
The latest poll follows the release of The Princeton Review’s Best Campus Food list in August, which put UMass in third place, based on a survey of 126,000 students at 378 colleges. In addition, Procrastination Station, the cafe inside the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, won Food Management magazine’s Best Concept Award for Best Convenience Retailing Concept last year.
“Our goal is to put students first by listening to them,” Toong said. “Everything we do we want to be the best we can be and to serve our diners, our customers, better.”
On any given day, the dining commons have available 15 different world cuisines, including sushi, which Toong said UMass serves more of daily than anywhere else.
As a self-supporting entity, Toong said revenues can be returned to the campus, observing that the $15.5 million renovation of Hampshire Dining Commons and the ongoing work at the Blue Wall at Campus Center is being paid for, in part, by the $80 million in revenues generated by the 23 eating areas spread across campus.
“It’s really important to us to have the volume and revenue to take care of the renovation expenses,” Toong said.
Part of auxiliary enterprises’ work is building excitement, such as bringing in guest chefs, encouraging parents to have meals on campus and having student ambassadors provide feedback on what is good and not so good about the dining experience.
The reputation is enhanced by the annual chefs conference, in which around 300 chefs come to campus in June for hands-on workshops and lectures.
Other New England colleges and universities that made it to the top 10 in the University Primetime survey included Harvard University, which was runner-up to UMass, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in seventh, Tufts University in Boston in ninth and Yale University in New Haven, Conn. in 10th. Bowdoin took top place in The Princeton Review rankings.