UI, Sodexo and Local Food

Last Wednesday Mark McKinney and I had a very interesting meeting with representatives of Sodexo the food service contractor for the University of Idaho, Charlie’s Produce, their supplier and UI’s Sustainability Center. The question was how to supply UI with more local produce. It was motivated by Sodexo’s contract with UI that sets a goal to use 12.5% local food (measured in dollars, local defined as Latah county).

Here is my attempt at a summary of what we learned:

Sodexo/UI works in large quantities (eg 400 lbs of potatoes/week) and wants to deal with a limited set of suppliers that can guarantee its needs.

Sodexo has a contract with Charlie’s to seek out local supplies that are competitively priced. Charlie’s is willing to serve as a middle-man between a local grower and UI’s needs.

UI requires Sodexo and Sodexo requires Charlie’s to carry a large food-borne illness insurance policy. Charlie’s places insurance and quality assurance requirements on its suppliers.

Sodexo and Charlie’s each have production requirements for growers, things like: no animal manure, fenced fields & hand-washing facilities. The requirements may vary with the crop. I have not seen them.

Sodexo/UI purchases many processed vegetables (lettuce shreds, baby carrots) because they don’t want to spend kitchen time with whole vegetables.

Charlie’s has delivery trucks coming to Moscow and proceeding to points south, and returning mostly empty to Spokane. They also have capacity to back-haul from Spokane to Seattle.

Charlie’s is willing to pick up from a local grower in Latah County, but only if the grower can provide sufficient volume to make the stop cost effective (think about a pallet load of cases of product).

Processing facilities require Federal inspection and are capital-intensive so they can handle semi-truck volumes quickly.

Charlie’s has a processing facility in Seattle, WA. Consequently, a local head of lettuce might travel 350 miles to the Seattle processing facility, become shreds, and travel 350 miles back to UI, all the while consuming 3-5 days of its shelf life.

The produce industry is moving to a system of vendor product tracking, so when there is a quality or health issue, the product can be traced back to the source field. Charlie’s is beginning to implement tracking on a voluntary basis.

Vendor product tracking is anticipated (by Charlie’s) to become mandatory and to be a requirement imposed by retail distributors on their suppliers (eg, grocery stores will begin to require it of their suppliers).

[The exception to all of the above is UI Soil Stewards, a student group farming just east of the Moscow City limits. Because they are covered by UI insurance, and because they are a student group that advances the idea of local eating in other ways, they are selling root vegetables (fewer health risks) directly to UI kitchens.]

From this, I conclude that there are real challenges for the local produce grower wanting to sell to UI, either the grower must:

  • work on sufficient scale to wholesale vegetables to Charlie’s, who will insure, track, process and deliver them to UI, or
  • participate in a grower’s co-op that can serve the role of Charlie’s in insurance, quality assurance, processing, delivery and relationship management with growers.
Either option will be capital intensive. Either faces challenges to get established in the county.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: