- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) - The idea sounds simple as pie.

Administrators and student food activists at Western Washington University recently agreed to the goal of having the university spend at least 25 percent of its dining hall food budget on locally sourced, sustainable farm products by 2020.

“It’s certainly doable, and it’s going to be a lot of work,” said Rosa Rice-Pelepko, an environmental studies sophomore from Shoreline who is vice president of Students for Sustainable Foods at Western.

She was one of several students who signed the agreement April 1 with Bruce Shepard, Western’s president, and Leonard Jones, director of University Residences, reported the Bellingham Herald (https://bit.ly/1SbKahP).

The commitment is part of a nationwide Real Food Challenge to shift $1 billion of university food budgets by 2020 to local farms that raise food in environmentally sound ways, treat workers fairly, and are humane to animals.

More than three dozen schools across the country have signed up, with commitments to shift from 20 percent to 40 percent of their food budgets. Other Washington schools on the list are The Evergreen State College (28 percent) and Gonzaga University (25 percent).

At Western, Aramark, the university’s food-service contractor, spent $5.4 million for dining hall food in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2015, so each 1 percent shift equals $54,000.

Counting what’s ‘real’

To be counted in the “real food” percentage, food suppliers must satisfy criteria established by the Real Food Challenge about farm size and location, ownership, farming and labor practices, and treatment of animals.

According to the university, 18.3 percent of its dining hall food budget was spent on eligible “real food” as of September 2015. But recent questions about animal-handling practices by a dairy that sells milk to Western could drop the rate to about 11 percent, Rice-Pelepko said.

Kurt Willis, associate director of University Residences, said Real Food representatives were aware of Western’s food purchases for the past few years and raised no concerns, but campus administrators were recently told about the dairy.

Aramark is pursuing discussions with Real Food about criteria for dairy farms, said Stephen Wadsworth, Aramark’s resident district manager for dining services at Western.

Willis said that because of periodic “moving of the bar” by Real Food, Western’s agreement specifically refers to Real Food’s criteria used in 2015. The agreements also says Western will work to promote “community based, and regionally sourced food purchases.”

Wadsworth said food grown or raised in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia qualifies as regional food. Counting the dairy supplier, nearly 33 percent of dining service purchases at Western are already covered by Real Food criteria on community or regional sourcing, he said.

To help Western reach its food goals, an oversight committee of students, faculty and staff will be created, with half of the members to be students. Rice-Pelepko and Willis agree that as the committee does its work, spending for local sustainable food needs to take into account students’ ability to pay for their dining hall meals, along with their other college costs.

“That’s where the nuance of the challenge comes in,” Willis said. ‘Each year we go on will provide a different challenge.”

Cheryl Thornton, who founded Cloud Mountain Farm near Everson with her husband, Tom, said a key question is whether Western’s 25 percent goal should apply to dining hall spending for food or to dining hall food itself. For example, buying local milk is good for local dairies, she said, but milk costs more than, say, salad greens, so a percentage pegged at dollars instead of food won’t help other farmers as much.

“I want to talk about food, I don’t want to talk about dollar value,” she said. “They need to be clear about what their goal is.”

Finding farmers

Willis said a challenge facing the university is finding more eligible food sources.

Thornton said another challenge is Aramark’s requirements for its food vendors, including liability coverage and independent inspections. Such requirements can deter small farmers, she said.

She said Puget Sound Food Hub might be a channel for Aramark to buy local farm products. The hub works with Puget Sound farmers to market, collect and distribute their products to hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores and other buyers.

Cloud Mountain, which is now a nonprofit center that educates farmers and works to expand markets for local produce and vegetables, is a distribution site for Puget Sound Food Hub. Cloud Mountain also has a state-certified processing facility, which makes it easier for local farmers to prepare their produce for sale.

Aramark currently uses Charlie’s Produce, a West Coast company that distributes produce in Washington and parts of seven other West or Mountain states.

“We have strict purchasing standards in place,” Wadsworth said. “This is to protect our customers.”

Even if Western falls short of its 25 percent goal, having students on the oversight committee is an important change that gives them a voice in the university’s food policy, Rice-Pelepko said. It also gives students a way to push for changes when Western’s dining-service contract comes up for renewal in 2020.

“We do want to find ways to support those smaller farms,” she said.


Information from: The Bellingham Herald, https://www.bellinghamherald.com

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