Does Local Cost More?
Many institutions that consider buying local are reluctant to do so given the common misconception that local food sourcing is more expensive than industrial food sourcing. Over half of the colleges who participated in the farm-to-college survey conducted by the Community Food Security Coalition reported that local products cost more on average. Yet this doesn’t always have to be the case. At Kenyon, we have established a system of food acquisition whereby it’s nearly as economical to buy local as it is to purchase through industrial sourcing.
In a local food system where everything is fresher and of higher quality, both the chefs and the students are less inclined to waste food. Over-ordering, over-producing, and cutting an inch off of the top of a carrot when only a quarter of an inch should be cut all add up. The administrative and culinary personnel of AVI are trained to maximize our local food expenditures and to ensure less waste. Meagan Worth-Cappell, our Executive Chef, understands the financial consequences of waste. She knows about how much of a certain ingredient to use for each meal, keeps track of the food once it is put out for consumption, and manages our menu in a way that minimizes waste. The students, too, are more conscientious about wasting our local food. The locally sourced food tastes better, so students are naturally more inclined to take less of it, and to finish the food already on their plates. To further encourage the students to take less and waste less food, the college has implemented trayless Tuesdays and Thursdays. When students don’t have access to trays, they tend to take only as much food as they can eat, and they end up throwing away less food. By educating the students, they grow aware of the efforts that go into bringing them fresh and local foods. They come to savor the quality of these items and are consequently less inclined to waste them.
Although some local foods cost more than conventionally available alternatives, we make for the money up in other ways. Some items such as meat are more expensive to purchase from our local farmers, owing largely to its higher quality; while produce is often much cheaper. Moreover, by establishing fixed prices with our individual suppliers of produce from the very beginning of our relationships with them, we avoid the fluctuations of the market. Our local produce often costs slightly less than the average market prices we would be paying if the items were industrially sourced. However, prices for local food vary greatly by region. Supply is so high in our area that it is less expensive; local food often costs more in areas where consumers are willing to pay more for local food, such as in the Northeast. Prices at our produce auctions also help to make up for the money we spend in other places. According to AVI’s Resident District Manager Damon Remillard, “We get wonderful wonderful wonderful produce at an extremely low price, so that our savings there gives us the ability to do things like local honey—things that are more costly than normal.”
Institutional buying power also helps to maximize our local food investments. When we buy in larger quantities, we can purchase the food at a lower cost. In order to enhance our buying power, we combine some of our local food purchases with other institutions in the county, such as our local hospital and another college down the road. Yet there is always room for improvement. Finding additional nearby institutions that support local would allow us to obtain even better deals for the local foods that we purchase while also increasing demand. Kenyon’s success as an institutional buyer has motivated the local hospital, senior center, some restaurants, and other schools to begin purchasing local.
Two major factors determine local food purchasing: how much local food is really available, and how much money the school is willing to set aside for local food expenditures. At Kenyon, we don’t have a discrete budget for local food purchases; rather, when Marsh discovers a new potential vendor, he must sit down with Remillard and argue a case for beginning to work with this source. Often times, this entails weighing the financial costs and benefits of picking up a new account. Remillard gives advice for institutions beginning to purchase local: “Be willing to lose a lot of money in the beginning as you figure it out. Have that budgeted: that you’re gonna say hey, we’re gonna figure this out, but we’re gonna go up and down over the next few years.” Although we pay more for local foods initially, we do so in the hopes that as economies of scale grow, the total costs of purchasing local for us will decrease.