With sustainability becoming a growing trend, many students may be happy to learn that each time they eat in the Western Michigan University Dining Halls, they have an opportunity to eat sustainably due to the Locally Sourced Initiative.
This year WMU Dining Services has committed to serving foods that are grown or produced from the Great Lakes states. The purpose is to support sustainability by reducing the carbon footprint of transporting goods from processors to end users by means of reducing the miles that food travels before it reaches the plate.
As of now, there is no official definition of “locally sourced.”
“To get started, which is where we are, we are saying that it’s the Great Lakes region,” said Judy Gipper, director of Dining Services.
Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin are all considered to be Great Lakes states.
“What I am very interested in having happen is for an organization with authority to find out what is considered local,” Gipper said.
It difficult to say if WMU would be able to decrease the size of the region in which they purchase foods from if “locally sourced” were to be defined as such. Gipper said the decrease in the variety of food and the increase in cost that would come along with purchasing from smaller region would possibly discourage Dining Services from doing so.
“People want quality food, they want food at a good price, they want a variety, and they want flexibility with our menu. So we would have to balance a lot of different things into that and we would be in communication with our students and our customers about it,” Gipper said.
Although supporting sustainability is a priority of Dining Services, there are several factors that come into play when making choices on where to purchase food including price, quality, distribution.
“If all the decision factors are equal we definitely want to go with a local company,” Gipper said.
Out of all of these factors price is a main priority for Dining Services. “We are always going to be very price conscious, and that’s what the students have wanted us to be,” Gipper said.
As a student who eats in the dining halls every day, WMU Freshmen Ashley Messenger agrees that price and variety are very important.
“I am paying a lot of money for food and I would like a decent variety to choose from,” she said. “If the prices were to increase I am sure that my meal plan would be reduced to a lower one because college is expensive as it is and raising the prices of the food would be too much.”
Gipper said buying locally sourced foods is significantly more expensive. This is one reason why Dining Services has opted to buy foods from all of the Great Lakes states instead of just Michigan.
“Food industries work on the premise of supplying the goods at a low price and the distribution is set up to make it very cost effective for us to buy,” Gipper said. “When you’re dealing with farmers and local people, the distribution is just not set up that way.”
This makes transitioning to purchasing foods from only Michigan much more expensive and time consuming. This was brought to the attention of Dining Services when they hosted a Farmers Market Luncheon on Sept. 16. The vast majority of the foods prepared at the luncheon were purchased from farms in Michigan only.
“Chef Paul Choker actually got in our dining truck, took a whole Sunday, and drove out to the farms and picked the food up himself,” Gipper said. “In order to do this luncheon we had to get with these farmers and set this up in May because they are not used to someone suddenly needing 4,000 servings of something. They aren’t set up that way. This makes it very costly.”
The commitment to purchase foods from the Great Lakes region hasn’t had a large cost effect on WMU. According to Gipper, much of the food Dining Services had been purchasing prior to the Locally Sourced Initiative was already from this region.
“I can’t say right now that we have increased the number of items [purchased from the Great Lakes states] since we have implemented this program, we are just identifying them now,” she said.
Alyssa Schafer, co-chair of Students for a Sustainable Earth , is understanding of the decision to purchase from all the Great Lakes states. “Eating locally is obviously the right choice, however it can be difficult,” she said. “Michigan simply can’t grow everything.”
Foods in the dining halls that are purchased from the Great Lakes states and food items prepared from recipes containing ingredients from the Great Lakes region are labeled with the Locally Sourced Logo.
Gipper said that the Locally Sourced Initiative was the students’ idea.
“The students indicated to me through surveys and different focus groups that the concept of buying local was important to them,” Gipper said. “I am interested in what the WMU student thinks, not what some magazine tells me 20 year olds like.”
Messenger said she supports the Locally Sourced Initiative.
“When I eat foods that are helping the environment, I feel like I am helping the environment, considering that I have helped purchased some of the food,” Messenger said.
She also said that she is more likely to choose foods in the dining halls that are locally sourced.
Dining Services’ Web site has a complete list of locally sourced foods served at WMU, and there is also a poster outside of each dining hall location every week. Some of these foods include bagels purchased from Big Apple Bagels on Stadium Drive and dairy products from a local dairy in Battle Creek, Mich. Dining Services also purchases their produce products from a distributer in Niles, Mich..
The Locally Sourced Initiative is only in its beginning stages and Gipper said she is always interesting in new ideas from students to take it even further. She plans to meet with the Western Student Association in November to get their feedback and input.
Schafer encourages students to take advantage of this opportunity to eat local.
“It is important for students to make the choice to support their local economies by supporting WMU’s decision to provide local food in the dining halls.” she said.
Schafer also believes the taste is a bonus.
“The food tastes better because it’s fresh,” Schafer said. “It didn’t just ride here in a semi-truck from California.”