Real Food, Real Forums: The future of UVM dining

By Olivia Peña

With Sodexo’s dining contract ending on June 30, 2015, UVM is currently engaged in a competitive bid process for the next contract. As this change approaches, UVM students, staff, and faculty have an opportunity to affect the next dining contract.  In an unprecedented level of transparency and community involvement, UVM has invited two dining vendors to present their proposals to the UVM community at Open Forums next Monday, November 17.

Dining Vendor Forums Fall 2014

With a growing awareness of food system issues both on and off campus, the committee responsible for selecting the next dining vendor (composed of University directors, vice presidents, deans, professors, and student representatives) incorporated many health and sustainability expectations into the Request for Proposals (RFP) that solicited bids from potential vendors. The RFP also emphasized financial feasibility, making sure that these sustainable strides will not have a significant (if any) impact on the meal plan cost for students. Similarly, the RFP asked for educational components. This will give students from majors across campus, from Accounting to Vermont Studies, the opportunity to get involved in the food system on campus. Additionally, a seemingly minor, but actually significant, provision requires the vendor to disclose rebates paid by producers and distributors to the vendor. This revolutionary provision shines light on a common practice that effectively utilizes the scale of university dining to leverage money from farmers and distributors directly into corporate profits.

As a leading institution in the Farm to Table movement, UVM is striving to find a vendor that will adopt our values, an intention consistent with current efforts already underway on campus. As a member of the Real Food Working Group (RFWG), my fellow members and I currently work in partnership with UVM Dining (Sodexo) and faculty members to implement the Real Food Campus Commitment. In 2012, the University signed this commitment to purchase 20% Real Food on campus by the year 2020. Many may wonder, “If there is not 20% real food on campus already, then what am I eating?” For the purposes of the Real Food Challenge, “Real Food” is food that is ecologically produced, locally grown or raised, fair trade, or humanely raised. The RFWG is responsible for implementing that commitment to increase the percentage of Real Food to campus. Furthermore, the RFWG strives to promote transparency within UVM Dining, and increase awareness about the current and future campus food system.

While some uninformed diners like to mock this commitment as “80% fake food by 2020,” keep in mind that the industrial food system is the prevailing food production model in our society, and changing the way we eat at large institutions takes time. Expecting a food vendor to jump head first into a commitment of 100% Real Food is an impractical proposal. What the best proposals will come down to is the creativity and resourcefulness of the vendors in how they will execute their transition from their current business model, a predominately industrial standard, to a more community-based, sustainable model.

With the presentations taking place on November 17, we as a university have a huge leverage point to advance and enhance our commitment to Real Food on campus. The Dining Vendor Selection Committee sanguinely added many stipulations into the document involving the implementation of this commitment, readying the vendors for what is expected of them by the University. With even greater potential to negotiate an improved contract, the RFWG sees an opportune time to further our commitment, and increase our calculated percentage of real food.

Although the RFP was groundbreaking in its attention to these issues, it’s important to consider that the new contract will not be a panacea to creating a perfect campus food system. The goal of these presentations is to identify which vendor will have an innovative plan to help progress the sustainable food system which we are crafting on campus. After all, asking these large-scale corporations to make a complete paradigm shift is not an easy entreaty.

So what is the impact of a new contract?

As a leading higher education institution in the study of sustainable food systems, UVM has an opportune chance to act upon our values. The creation of “living laboratories” allows students to see ideas from the classes and programs they are involved in reflected in the food they eat in the dining halls.

On a larger scale, the Burlington and Vermont communities can benefit greatly from the involvement of a wider variety of local food providers in serving food on campus. One provision in the RFP is a possible subcontract of a retail dining location, the Marché, to a local food service provider. Perhaps we will someday have vendors such as City Market or Healthy Living (two community based groceries in the Burlington area) providing diners on campus with a real meal or snack without having to leave campus. Furthermore, this will increase student awareness and consciousness of the local food system to which we belong and contribute.

Finally, for Sodexo, this is their opportunity to show UVM that they are committed to both the Real Food Challenge and the values of the UVM community. Even if Sodexo is awarded the next contract, UVM has an opportunity to press for more sustainable practices and methods that align with our changing views of both the campus and global food system.

As Michael Pollan emphasized in his lecture at UVM on October 30, the sustainable food movement is still in its relatively early stages. Similar to other movements that have taken place in our country, change often doesn’t happen overnight.  Asking the new vendors for this paradigm shift really is a significant request, and the strongest proposal will display a plan that promotes sustainability, while ensuring financial feasibility for students, meal plan holders, UVM, and the vendor itself.

Michael Pollan Real Food pic
Michael Pollan with members of the UVM Real Food Challenge. Photo by Cheryl Dorschner.

As November carries on, Thanksgiving is not the only food issue consuming the minds of UVM students. If you are a member of the UVM community, and wish to be involved in this process, come to the Open Forums on Monday, November 17, from 9:00-10:30 a.m., and 2:30-4:00 p.m., in the Billings North Lounge.

Olivia Peña is a sophomore at UVM majoring in Animal Science with minors in Food Systems and Nutrition and Food Science.

Posted in: Economic, Environmental, Health, Social, UVM.