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Wisconsin Colleges Pay Family Farmers A Fair Price For Quality Food

Now more than ever, farmers are looking for new markets and customers who will pay a fair price for their products. Dining services at four colleges in Wisconsin are buying directly from farmers and paying premium prices for a wide variety of meats, vegetables, and fruit.

Northland College, Beloit College, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are using their buying power to support Wisconsin”s family farmers. The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at UW-Madison”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is helping farmers work with the food service managers at these schools to break into these new markets.

“There is room for more farmers to sell to colleges,” said John Hendrickson, a researcher with the Center”s College Food Project. “When colleges buy food locally, the money stays in Wisconsin”s economy and supports Wisconsin family farmers. And the students get fresh, nutritious food.”

Hendrickson said that the University of Wisconsin-Madison spends nearly $10 million each year on food for its dining services. If ten percent of these food purchases were made locally, that would put almost an extra million dollars into the pockets of Wisconsin family farmers.

Northland College in northern Wisconsin has been serving food from nearby farms since 1997. Lee and Judy Stadnyk of Willow Run Farm sell their produce to Northland. They have storage facilities at their farm and deliver food weekly throughout the school year. They are required by the college to carry $2 million worth of liability insurance, which costs them $180 a year.

Northland pays retail prices to farmers like the Stadnyks, who earn $1 a pound for their organic carrots and $.55 a pound for their organic potatoes.

Student requests led the dining center at Beloit College to purchase locally grown food. According to dining center director Bill Behling, “Beloit students care about eating food produced on local farms, and I also feel good about switching to more locally grown food.” During the fall, Behling buys apples from Finley Orchard in Rock County.

Seasonally, the dining centers at UW-Platteville serve locally grown fruits and vegetables. During the summer, food service director Deb Putnam buys produce from a local farm.

“We cook for the Chicago Bears training camp here on campus, and I serve them local sweet corn and tomatoes,” said Putnam. “I also buy pumpkins that are grown locally because they are better quality than pumpkins from the distributor.”

This spring, a UW-Madison program in campus dining centers drew attention to the benefits of Wisconsin-raised food. The highlight of this program was a “Regional Seasonal Dinner” that was attended by more than 400 people including students, farmers, professors, and CALS dean Elton Aberle. The participants agreed that UW-Madison can and should serve more food from local farms.

Why don”t more Wisconsin colleges and universities purchase food locally from family farmers? Researchers at the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems talked with dining center directors at 28 Wisconsin colleges to learn more about the barriers to local food purchase and identify potential solutions.

Many dining center directors said that they do not know where and how to buy from farmers in their area. But dining center directors in Wisconsin do know the value of farm-fresh food. The majority of the directors said that they shop – for their own families – at farm stands and farmers markets.

Buying from farmers can mean more work for dining center directors. Some directors say that they don”t buy from farmers because of red tape and higher costs. Wisconsin farmers cannot offer the convenience of all-season, one-stop shopping provided by mainstream distributors.

Farmers who sell to colleges sometimes have to buy liability insurance. They also need to be willing to wait for payment, sometimes for months.

Many colleges, including eight of the 13 University of Wisconsin campuses, are contracted to large food service corporations. These corporations cut costs by buying all of their food from large distributors. Only “approved vendors” can sell large quantities of food to these dining services.

Getting that approval can be tough, but it”s possible. According to UW-Green Bay food service director, Jim Laughlin, “We have to buy from approved vendors. But that doesn”t mean that we can”t get local vendors approved. Many Wisconsin dairies and bakeries are approved vendors with our dining service.”

Student requests often convince food service directors to make the effort to buy locally. According to Stadnyk, “Students have to take the initiative and demand a change in the way that they eat. The growers can”t do it. It needs to be the students. And they need to be backed up by the college”s administration.”

At Beloit, UW-Platteville, Northland, and UW-Madison, the students and administrators have already taken these steps to support Wisconsin”s family farms.