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Highlights from the Neighborhood to Nation Conference: Field Trip Sustainable Food Purchasing Policy

Field Trip: Sustainable Food Purchasing Policy at Large Urban Institutions

Earlier this year I started research on Phase II of The Lunch Box. The goal of Phase II is to create tools for schools, districts, states, non-profits, etc. to use in procurement for scratch-cooked menus including USDA commodity foods, regionally sourced foods, and companies that are manufacturing clean labeled foods that can be used in school meals. It is for this reason I was especially excited to join in on the Sustainable Food Purchasing Policy at Large Institutions Field Trip.

On the field trip we toured Portland Public School District’s central offices and central kitchen, Portland State University’s food services department, and OSHU’s (Portland Hospital) food and nutrition services all to see how they are adapting their menus, staffing, purchasing and more to include sustainable foods into their offerings.

Portland Public Schools serves 22,000 lunches as day, 11,000 breakfasts and 2,000 dinners in 85 schools. In 2005 they started making changes to their school food in order to provide the students with healthier options within the context of supporting local farmers and sustainable living. They approached this challenge in a number of ways: they started a “Harvest of the Month” program adding a local menu one day of every month in the school year, they began to make it a rule of thumb to buy local when local is available by implementing policies that chose local first, they also removed some bad foods on the menu and replaced them with very interesting new products.

The “Harvest of the Month” program involves planning out a featured fruit or vegetable for each month of the school year – a year ahead of time. This way, the Portland Public Schools menu planner can work with farmers to secure a large enough amount of product for all students to have – and be able to colorfully advertise this product on the school food menu and in the form of eye-catching, trendy-looking posters put up in schools. The school district also allows frozen and canned local product into their “Harvest of the Month” program to show students that local food comes in many forms – and doesn’t always have to be fresh!

I felt this was a great way to start incorporating local product onto the school menu in a gradual way. Anyone who works for a school or school district’s nutrition services in purchasing knows the plethora of struggles with purchasing locally. The purchasing systems are not generally set up to “think” this way – and when starting to try local purchasing it often feels a bit like reinventing the wheel.

It is so important to offer local food to students – not only so they gain exposure to the freshness and variety that farms in their area can provide, but also to help support local farmers and decrease contribution to greenhouse gases by cutting down on “food miles.” Food miles is a term used to describe how far food has traveled from farm to table. The more miles, the more gas is used in transport and the less fresh the product is going to be.

The Portland Public Schools have also addressed their mission to purchase locally by creating RFPs identifying local product. An RFP is a Request for Purchase – a document that describes, based on the menu planning, what an institution is seeking to purchase. By identifying in an RFP that you want local product, your distributors can recognize and attempt to procure product locally.

This may seem like a relatively easy step to take – but of course comes with its own set of issues. Produce from local farms is often more expensive than the alternative, and considering schools are spending approximately one dollar in food cost per child per meal – keeping budget in mind is extremely important! Local farmers also may not have the resources or abilities that distributors are used to such as access to email. I learned on the field trip that many of the farmers Portland Public Schools work with do business by phone only!

It is truly amazing that with all the barriers to buying local – Portland Public Schools are able to work with over ten farms to serve their thousands of students local food on a regular basis.

Some other changes Portland Public Schools have made to make school lunch healthier have been: removing ranch and replacing the calorie-filled dressing with a dressing made with locally harvested Marionberries that the kids love, serving chicken nuggets with a clean label which they have demanded from Tyson, and adding a nice local snack to the menu called “Zak O Mega Bars.” These bars have been created by Fairlight Bakery in Oregon. The flour used for the bars is a local Shepherd’s grain (the same they use for their homemade pizza crust!) and tastes like a treat even with low sugar and high fiber stats!

The field trip also led us to visit a Portland State University cafeteria where the school has connected with Aramark food services to provide sustainable foods to students and staff. They are currently serving 60% local foods from within a 200 mile radius – a huge feat! Once a quarter the cafeteria holds “Meet the Farmer” events where diners can connect with growers and all in all the Portland State Cafeteria provides a great example of how a large institution can work with a food services management company to provide sustainable foods to customers.

The last stop on the field trip was to OHSU – Oregon’s Health and Science University Hospital. OHSU has recognized that better foods help patients to heal and reinforce a healthy lifestyle as a way of life. They have gone so far as to create a Sustainability Department which works to provide patients, staff, and visitors with the highest quality of foods. They use evidence-based claims to justify these changes which include a weekly farmers market on hospital grounds, a small series of gardens, and new purchasing guidelines. An example of one new purchasing protocol OHSU has taken on is beef. The sustainability committee realized that Food Services was spending a lot on premium beef – which basically means the expensive parts of cows that were raised in concentrated feeding operation (CFOs) where they were cooped up, exposed to disease, and treated with antibiotics to keep them alive. Food Services researched and came to realize that buying a whole cow from a local farm saves them money, ensures them that the animal was raised in better conditions, and only comes with the stipulation that chefs have to learn to work with all the parts and not just the premium cuts!

The Sustainable Food Purchasing Policy at Large Urban Institutions Field Trip provided a valuable experience for me displaying how large institutions can incorporate sustainable and local foods into their budget. I learned that some changes have come in the form of including local food as a priority on Request for Purchases, some changes mean working with groups such as Fairlight Bakery, Aramark, and even straight with the farmers themselves to work through the challenges and begin providing better food for your customers, and in general creating an environment where healthy, local, and sustainable food is considered important and becomes the norm.


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