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Sustainable Purchasing Initiative at Green Mountain College

Principal Investigators: Philip Ackerman-Leist, Garland Mason
Funding: VISTA Local-Link Coordinator position for 2 years

From serving squash and tomatoes grown on the campus farm to collecting food scraps at the dining hall for composting back at the college’s Cerridwen Farm, Green Mountain College’s Farm & Food Project is dedicated to closing the loop of the local food system.

Green Mountain College is committed to sustainable agriculture and strives to serve local and responsibly produced foods in the dining hall whenever possible. In addition to offering a new masters program in Sustainable Food Systems, the College is nationally known for its major in Sustainable Agriculture & Food Production, an academic program that offers students the opportunity to work on the college’s on-campus farm. Through a combination of coursework and experience working on the farm, students are able to explore vegetable production, livestock management, development of farm infrastructure, and marketing techniques as they take part in producing some of the vegetables, eggs, and meats featured in the dining hall.

Along with Chartwells dining services, students and faculty have long been exploring new ways to offer local, organic, and other sustainable food options. These efforts became more formal after a nine-credit block course, entitled "Food, Agriculture, and Community Development in the Northeast," was offered in the fall of 2006. Students and three faculty members wrapped up the course by developing a set of sustainable purchasing guidelines for the dining hall.

These sustainable purchasing guidelines provided the college with the following targets:

  • To increase local food purchases by 5% of the total food budget each year over the years 2007-2010

  • To maximize the purchase of appropriately-certified products (such as organic and fair-trade)

  • To ensure that sustainable food products are prominently featured in the dining hall

  • To develop methods for assessing and ensuring current and future progress

In the 2009-2010 academic year, GMC’s Chartwells dining services purchased $6,425 dollars worth of produce and meat from the college farm to be served in the GMC dining hall. The purchase of five pigs raised by students on the college farm prompted a celebratory localvore feast which featured the pork and an array of seasonal vegetables and other Vermont products.

In addition to sourcing ingredients from the college farm, Chartwells spent another $84,974 in support of Vermont businesses. These sources included Vermont-based producers such as Thomas Dairy and Champlain Orchards and Vermont-based distributers and suppliers such as Black River Produce and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. These purchases represented about 14% of the College’s total food purchases. The College also strives to support local businesses in purchases of non-food items such as linens and kitchenware.

In 2007-08 and 2008-09, work-study students began tracking all of the purchases made in the GMC dining hall, breaking receipts for all products and services into categories that began to show successes, challenges, and questions. In 2009-10 and 2010-11, GMC’s new “Local-Link Coordinator” (VISTA volunteers Colleen Teevin and Garland Mason) provided the focus and expertise for GMC to refine the methods of analysis, research the true origins of many products, and research alternative sources for more local and sustainable products. Because of improvements and changes in methods for data collection and analysis since the fall of 2006, it is difficult to compare the current figures with calculations from prior years, simply because GMC’s tracking mechanisms are much more detailed and refined than the earlier systems used. GMC Farm and Food Project director Philip Ackerman-Leist, who has been involved in the project since its beginning estimates that sustainable food purchases have increased about 3% in 2009-2010.

Green Mountain strives to increase sustainable purchasing and uses small-scale New England based distributors when logistically and financially feasible. In 2009-2010 Green Mountain College spent $155,500 or 27% of the entire budget on products distributed by New England based companies such as Sid Wainer, Black River, Green Mountain Coffee Company. These companies are small and local, and as such can be more readily held accountable in terms of environmental and social responsibility than some of the larger and more inaccessible corporations.

Green Mountain College and Chartwells Dining Services have experienced several difficulties and setbacks in their effort to increase sustainable purchasing, although every challenge in these efforts is a lesson for students and faculty about the difficulties of changing our regional and national food systems.

The principle hurdle at present is that of budget constraints. Vermont is known for its high quality meat, produce, and specialty foods, but because of the state’s higher cost of production due to climate, landscape, and infrastructure, it has become cheaper to import much of our food from states like Iowa and California, where conditions often favor larger scale and less costly production. The economics of the food system as they currently stand make it difficult for many institutions, including Green Mountain College, to purchase primarily local food. Students at Green Mountain College meet weekly with the campus directors of Chartwells to discuss these issues as we try to include more high quality Vermont products on a regular basis without compromising the budget.

The second constraint is in-kitchen processing. Budget constraints aside, once Chartwells is able to source local food, the next hurdle is invariably the processing and availability of these products. When Chartwells staff order food from a distributor, they are able to specify whether they want that item pre-peeled, pre-cut, or even pre-cooked. Local producers are generally small-scale and are unable to offer such services.

Another constraint is availability. Again, because local producers are generally small-scale, the availability of certain items may not be sufficient to feed the entire college for a single meal at any given point in time. Because of this constraint, in order to support local small scale producers, Chartwells managers find themselves in the predicament of having to source a single product from several area farms. The lack of “aggregated product” (a combined pool of specific products from various farms, available to purchasers such as Chartwells from a single source) means that such orders are not feasible from a cost, labor, or logistical standpoint.

On a similar note, there are many local beef producers, as well as a limited number of pork and poultry producers, who market high quality and responsibly raised animals, but the college is as of yet unable to take advantage of these opportunities for local purchasing on a large scale. Small-scale livestock producers generally seek to market their carcasses in whole or half animals and are unable to supply the college with hundreds of rounds or chucks, for example, on any given day. Chartwells is currently working with a team of committed students to change menus and construct new refrigeration infrastructure in order to allow the college to buy locally produced meat, as well as meat that is produced on the college farm.

Green Mountain College is committed to researching and improving the ease with which the College dining services and other institutions such as local hospitals and public schools will be able to purchase local foods. The College is a major supporter of the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL), a non-profit organization whose core mission is to increase production of and access to local foods.

Together with RAFFL, the Farm & Food Project supports the AmeriCorps*VISTA “Local Link Coordinator” Position. A major part of the VISTA’s role at Green Mountain College is the data collection and research for the college’s sustainable purchasing initiatives in the dining hall. The VISTA’s records and research are serving as a model for other colleges and universities interested in developing transparent and accurate “sustainable food” tracking systems. The levels of detail and precision used in the tracking methods at GMC are more reflective of economic and environmental sustainability than those methods used by many institutions. The tracking system being developed at GMC will help other institutions to self-audit and self-evaluate in order to measure their progress towards sustainability.

Local food programs at Green Mountain College are quickly expanding. GMC is currently experimenting with the VT Agency of Agriculture’s mobile quick freeze unit, testing the freezing and packaging of various fresh local products for use in institutional kitchens. Construction of new high-efficiency walk-in refrigeration and freezing units in the dining hall will enhance storage capacity for local products, including meats. The expansion of production on the college farm will also provide the dining hall with all of its pork and a tripling of its farm fresh eggs. Additionally, the construction of two experimental high tunnel greenhouses on the college farm--with one heated with solar hotwater root-zone heating and the other unheated as an experimental control—will increase the off-season greens production for the dining hall.

GMC is committed to expanding its sustainable purchasing efforts while also transforming the inherent challenges of these efforts into research and education opportunities for students, faculty, and the region.

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