When it comes to the food service industry, you can't get much bigger than Sodexo. The company has more than 400,000 employees in 80 countries.
Sodexo serves about 35,000 meals a day in Vermont on college campuses and in nursing homes, schools and hospitals.
In 2014, the company spent 15 percent of its Vermont food budget - more than $3 million - on locally grown products. Now company officials say they want to increase that and have created a new pilot program to do it.
Sodexo's sizable footprint in Vermont is why state officials, such as Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, have pushed the company to use more locally grown ingredients.
"We challenged them here at the Agency of Agriculture to say, 'Can you make a commitment to Vermont in figuring out how to source food locally? Something you can translate to other parts of the country but learn how to do in Vermont?' They thought about it and said, 'Yes, we will,'" Ross said.
Sodexo officials wouldn't say how much more locally sourced foods they plan to buy. Partly, they say because there are still kinks with distribution and communication. But those are challenges the company says it is working to overcome.
Annie Rowell was hired by Sodexo to coordinate its buy local effort in Vermont. She says having a company point person working directly with local farmers and distributors will help streamline the buying process for Sodexo.
And she says she can help food producers better understand what the company wants.
Rowell says Sodexo hopes to apply what it learns about buying local in Vermont to its operations in other states.
She believes company-sponsored forums, like one held Wednesday in Castleton with food producers, distributors and Sodexo supply mangers, will also help.
"Where we have the tomato suppliers in the room who want to be able to increase their market share with current distributors - having these networking opportunities," Rowell says. "And also to have a person in my position to help move that topic forward."
Justin Rich, a farmer from Huntington, was one of about 65 people at the forum.
"Getting all the information from the people definitely gives you a leg up when you're looking for expansion," says Rich. "It's understanding how the produce distribution system works outside of the CSA and farmers market model - which is how a lot of people start - but they can kind of grow out of that, or want to expand."
Vermont Agency of Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross says from 2009 to 2013, about 4,100 new jobs were created in the food system in Vermont and about 655 new food-related businesses.
He says Sodexo's efforts to buy local should boost those numbers even more.