The multinational food service company Sodexo is working to increase the amount of local food served in 20 locations around Vermont. The company has hired Annie Rowell as the company's Vermont First Coordinator.
Sodexo serves 34,000 meals daily in Vermont at the University of Vermont, St. Michael's College, Champlain College, Norwich University, World Learning in Brattleboro, Southern Vermont College, as well as the state colleges, Castleton, Lyndon, Johnson and Vermont Technical College and hospitals. An increase in local food at Sodexo could be a big boost to local food producers. Last year, the company's budget in Vermont was $22.3 million. $3.2 million was spent on local food, and that's the number Sodexo is looking to grow. The company employs just over 1,000 people in the state.
"The Vermont First strategy is about how we can create a more reliable and consistent market for local food. The initiative is part of a demand from colleges and our clients across the state and we are hearing that loud and clear," says Annie Rowell, Sodexo's Vermont First Coordinator. "It's a response to the ongoing work across the state of a strong farm economy and really working to grow those markets. So as one of the largest markets in the state with potential for increasing our local purchasing, we're really looking for our state partners and strong farm partners to produce for this market."
Local food is more expensive, said Phil Harty, Sodexo's regional vice president, but the company is committed to the effort. "It's about how we manage that process, in doing it in a sustainable manner, in a responsible manner for our partners as well. The conversations, and there are many in the state of Vermont, have been very healthy and have been ongoing for many years. We bring an industrial perspective to the conversation." Harty said that conversation has been led by the efforts of Gov. Peter Shumlin and Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross about how Sodexo's large market share can have a role in growing farm economy.
"The possibilities are vast once we engage in the conversation and start to develop the marketplace," Harty added.
One challenge is scale. "Direct markets for farms are becoming more saturated," Rowell explained. "The farmers' markets, the CSAs, they are very robust markets but they are becoming more challenging points of entry for farms. So as farms begin to look to more wholesale options, we can really work with farms to define what that number is and work with them to begin to grow that volume for this type of market." In addition to volume needs, Rowell will be working with farms on food safety and pricing.
Currently, Sodexo works with local food distributors Black River Produce, Best of Vermont, and direct suppliers like Champlain Orchards and Thomas Dairy. They are also working to bring the Intervale Food Hub into the mix.
The work that Sodexo has done in Vermont has spurred on other local efforts, Harty said. Sodexo is working with New York state on their Pride of New York pledge, and they're working with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute on sustainable fishing and developing markets for underutilized fish species.