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Reliability in a Local Food System

Reliability is a key factor for any institutional food system: in order to provide over 4,000 meals a day for our 1,650 students, food must one way or another show up on the loading dock when needed. First and foremost, Kenyon must have a reliable system for acquiring food, whether from local or industrial sources. Eighty-two percent of all the food suppliers that Kenyon works with are local. In addition to the established local producers on which we consistently rely, we must also be creative and flexible in our means of obtaining local food; the less conventional ways of getting food locally can often be the most beneficial for both the institution and the greater community. As an institution, we have found that local acquisition of food can be just as reliable as acquisition from large-scale or industrial sources. The key to ensuring reliability in a local food system lies in the relationships formed between the institution and its individual producers.

Institutions are often reluctant to begin  acquiring  food locally because they fear that local food sourcing will be less reliable than large-scale conventional food sourcing. We have found, however, that if the proper infrastructure for a local food system is in place, local food providers are significantly more reliable and consistent than those industrial suppliers. This is due to the unique nature of the relationships formed between the small-scale, local suppliers and the institutional buyer. Unlike those of a conventional food system, the relationships we form with our producers are not merely business transactions; they are friendships built upon integrity, trust, and mutual support. We find our producers are much more dependable when we have taken the time and effort to develop personal relationships with them.

The relationship between Kenyon and one of our former largest suppliers demonstrates the significance of establishing close relationships with one’s producers. A local family-owned dairy operation called Hartzler Family Dairy used to be Kenyon’s second largest overall suppler, yet we had very few personal interactions with Hartzler outside of purchase orders. One day, a manager of Hartzler unexpectedly stopped into the AVI office to inform Marsh that the company could no longer deliver milk to us because of inadequate supply. Just like that, about a fourth of our local food sourcing was gone. Hartzler’s production had dropped and they were already quite successful in their retail business, so they no longer needed Kenyon’s financial support. Marsh says, “Because I did not have a relationship with Hartzler, I did not know it was coming. It’s all about relationships.”[1] Had we developed more of a personal relationship with Hartzler, we would have probably been aware of their problems, and may have been able to work something out with them.

By comparison, our relationship with Kenyon’s primary meat processor exemplifies the mutual benefits of creating and sustaining lasting personal relationships. Andy Bergman* of Bergman Meats has been processing meat for Kenyon College since we initially went local with our meat production in 2007. According to Bergman, his relationship with Marsh is centered upon communication: “We probably communicate via phone or text or email, two to three or four times a week, sometimes more, and it’ll be everything from cheese orders, to I have more cattle or more hogs coming, to cutting or processing instructions.”[2] Unlike the case of Hartzler Dairy, Bergman states that his relationship with the college ultimately saved his business when he was struggling financially: “You saved us. Kenyon College absolutely sustained Bergman meats. We’d have been gone four years ago, without a doubt.”[3] Due to our personal and communicative relationship with Bergman, we became aware of his emerging financial problems and were able to provide him with the help and support that he needed to stay in business—in the end, both of us were better off for it.

These case studies involving Hartzler Family Dairy and Bergman Meats demonstrate that personal relationships with our producers truly make the difference in reliability between a local and a conventional network of suppliers. This is what enables our local food system to work. Yet in order to actually form these relationships, there must be an individual representative from the college who goes out and makes these connections with various members of the community.

[1] Quotations from John Marsh were collected in the course of ongoing fieldwork between July 11 and August 22 2011.

* This and subsequent names have been changed.

[2] Interview with Andy Bergman, Zanesville, Ohio, September 15, 2011.

[3] Interview with Andy Bergman, Zanesville, Ohio, September 15, 2011.

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