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Tuesday, November 24, 2015
"The students want to know the story behind the food. Sales increase when there's a story behind a dish," said Dawn Aubrey, Associate Director of Housing for Dining Services, at a recent local food workshop at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. That is good news for Illinois farmers. College foodservice is the birthplace of food trends and increasing university student demand for local food will translate into a lifetime of more mindful eating.
Student demand is just one component of the increasing opportunities for local farmers to sell to large-scale institutional buyers. At the same workshop, attendees heard from high-level officials from major food distribution firms interested in purchasing significantly more locally grown food. A second local food workshop hosted by the Illinois Farm Bureau in Bloomington also revealed interest from large-scale grocery chains.
University of Illinois Dining Services spends $15 million a year on food. The percentage of this annual food budget that is spent on local food is likely to grow over time, as more students make informed food choices and demand higher quality, and as the university implements its climate action plan, adopted in 2010.
The climate action plan includes a goal of purchasing 30% local food by 2015, which means food produced within 100 miles of Champaign-Urbana. If the University reaches its goal of 30% local that will add $4.5 million into our local economy. Research conducted by Dane Hunter at University of Illinois found that "an important effect of local spending is that the effects can compound over time. When local spending increases and local businesses prosper, they can offer more products and services which in turn lead to more sales and more successful businesses."
Fortunately, central Illinois has the soil, the weather, and highly-skilled farmers who are ready to meet this challenge. According to Dane Hunter, it would take only 100 acres to supply all of the flour, bread and baked goods for campus, less than 20 acres to supply dry beans, and 300 acres to supply soybean oil. A transition from a meat-based diet to one focused on vegetables and grains would also help reduce the university's "carbon foodprint," up to half of which is attributable to the raising of livestock, according to Hunter.
Dane Hunter describes large institutions like the University of Illinois as "anchor institutions," which can significantly impact the region through its purchasing. "This economic investment has substantial potential to create regional jobs," Hunter said. In this way, the local food movement can provide rural economic development, increase the financial viability of area farms, allow more young people to farm, and provide fresh, flavorful and nutrient dense food to area residents.
Despite the perennial challenges of farming, many farmers are feeling renewed excitement about their livelihood. Bill Davison, local food systems educator for University of Illinois Extension, says, "The trend toward more local food is incredibly important for farmers, especially those who want to turn over a thriving family farm to the next generation." For more information please contact Bill Davison, Extension unit educator, Local Foods and Small Farms-Livingston, McLean, Woodford Unit at (309) 663-8306, or email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.