Written by Bobby Young
For over 10 years, the Intervale Food Hub has been working with Sodexo and the University of Vermont to increase their procurement of local foods. The Intervale Food Hub, a social enterprise of the Intervale Center, works with nearly 40 Vermont producers to sell local food direct to individuals and wholesale to chefs and institutions in the greater Burlington, Vermont area. In 2015, the Intervale Food Hub officially became a Sodexo-approved vendor and achieved the goal of reaching $50,000 in sales during the 2015-16 academic year.
Lessons learned from this project confirm results from recent Farm to Institution New England (FINE) research—the institutional market shows promise for the future of local food, but a myriad of challenges stand in the way of real change. Understanding these challenges and lessons is critical to achieving many of the goals of Vermont’s Farm to Plate food system plan, including how to increase institutional consumption and farm viability as we work to expand markets for Vermont farmers, develop distribution infrastructure, and build capacity in small and medium-scale local food distribution—all of which relate to the Farm to Plate goals to increase distribution and local food availability.
The Intervale Food Hub has been cultivating relationships with Sodexo at UVM for over 10 years. These relationships were critical to creating successful procurement systems and meeting our financial targets. We had honest and transparent conversations with the Sodexo leadership team throughout the entire project.
Volumes are Small
The Sodexo market at UVM is not that large; the annual produce budget at UVM Sodexo is approximately $1.2M, and only a small portion of what they want to buy can actually be produced in Vermont during college semesters. In the 2015-2016 academic year, the average sales through the Intervale Food Hub averaged $1,500/week. In the Fall 2016 semester, sales grew to an average of $3,500 per week. While all shifts toward local are positive, these low weekly volumes can make it difficult to justify the associated expenses of selling to institutions.
Alternative Distributors Require Alternative Systems
We learned quickly that there were many differences between the Intervale Food Hub and mainstream distributors. It was important for us to define these differences and to work with the Sodexo team on the ground to successfully build systems that encourage sales through the Intervale Food Hub. For example, chefs generally do not need to plan their orders in advance since they have access to mainstream distributors 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. However, we order from farmers in real time and don’t keep a standing inventory of product. In order for us to be more competitive, we increased our deliveries from once a week to twice a week and increased pre-planning efforts with chefs.
Price is a Significant Barrier
Although we clearly found opportunities for increased local food sales to Sodexo, price remains a significant barrier to growing the institutional market. We can continue to make slow, incremental progress, but real change will require institutional change at the corporate and university level. Part of this change may be better understanding the real value working with small, local distributors like the Intervale Food Hub brings to Sodexo’s brand, and ensuring that these distributors and farmers are compensated for that value beyond the cost of food.
True Culture Change is Necessary and Takes Time
To create systemic changes in food procurement at the institutional level, it is necessary to foster culture change from the top down. This change will take time, and it will require a serious commitment from both Sodexo and the University of Vermont. Increased campus-wide staff and chef training is essential. Students need to continue demanding and eating higher quality, healthier and more diverse foods. Instead of retrofitting old systems, there is a need to develop new menus and markets centered on local food. The focus needs to shift from substituting local for non-local in the dining halls to creating new systems and innovations such as local-food-focused salad bars or dining halls – like the new facility UVM will open in 2017 - that will systemically change institutional procurement and consumption.
The biggest lesson learned during the first year of selling wholesale to Sodexo at UVM was the need to increase annual sales in the coming years to reach financial sustainability. In order to achieve this, plans working with Sodexo and UVM include:
- Refine priority products and estimated volumes;
- Increase student awareness and advocacy with additional marketing and promotions;
- Support new initiatives such as an all-local salad bar or farm-to-table dining hall; and
- Continue to develop relationships with chefs through increased sales staff presence.
On a broader scale, however, the Intervale Food Hub remains mindful that the institutional standard is still based on a cheap food production system. It will require deep cultural transformation at the institutional level to make it a feasible wholesale market for local foods. Continued collaborative work with Sodexo and UVM is imperative for the Intervale Food Hub as they work toward real change with thoughtful persistence.
For more information, please visit www.intervalefoodhub.com. Thanks to the John Merck Fund for their support of this project.