On November 9th, 2009, I attended the annual meeting of the Institutional Food Market Coalition at the Lussier Family Heritage Center in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. Willy Street Co-op was there in part as a vendor, in part as a buyer—I was looking for a way to  further increase our commitment to Wisconsin farmers without increasing our costs, and I hoped some perspectives from other institutional foodservice operations would help us put together a procurement strategy for 2010.

The speaker who led off the meeting, Greg Christian of Greg Christian Catering in Chicago, spoke directly to the challenges of incorporating local produce into a business model responsive to the market at large—which is to say, just about any business model. Greg’s company was undertaking incorporating “green” initiatives into a production schedule that includes large hotel chains with rigid price points for very standardized items like boxed lunches—and as you might imagine, the budget directors for programs like these aren’t interested in raising prices or receiving products that are unfamiliar to a large cross-section of the clientele. Again, price sensitivity and playing to as much of the market as feasible—nothing new for any food-service operation.

Greg had some very interesting things to say and seemed to have made some smart moves in acclimating his customers to the advantages and limits of using local produce, such as changing nothing but the portion size of, say, chicken on a sandwich to begin with. Same price, same look, somewhat smaller sandwich, big jump in quality. Once trust was established, he was able to move forward with such changes as eliminating tomatoes from sandwiches when out of season (much of the year in the upper Midwest) and changing some menu items to get variety into the mix of offerings. One of the most interesting aspects of his address to the meeting was his frank acknowledgement that quality and marketability have to be the starting benchmarks for a successful green procurement policy.

Several other presenters in large, standardized foodservice settings spoke at the conference and more than one cited the Badgerland Produce Auction as a linchpin of their success in weaving large volumes of seasonal Wisconsin produce into their programs while never losing control of costs. To the contrary, the testimony was uniformly that using the auction extensively had reduced food costs. This is not what many are used to hearing in discussions of using local produce, even though it seems intuitively that it should be so. We here at Willy Street Co-op certainly know that items from just a few miles or perhaps a county or two away, with reduced transport, refrigeration and handling costs, can cost more than produce from the West Coast—and, need to be ready to explain why. Many Owners are highly educated on farm subsidies and how large producers may be so heavily favored by them that their product is cheaper than that grown at home. So, again, the discussion returns to quality, which is typically where locally grown produce has a strong advantage.

The Badgerland Auction, under the direction of Mary Jean Reading, sells organic produce but not only organic produce. It is a cooperative of over 200 farming families from Central Wisconsin who have agreed to bring product to this forum only if it has been harvested within 24 hours. The forum is designed for volume buyers and all produce is graded by USDA standards. Hearing about this for the first time in the same discussion with other food-service operators who had made such effective use of the auction, I realized that with a refrigerated truck already in the Co-op’s fleet, this might be the way to answer the perennial call for even more local produce in our prepared foods program and a way to emphasize local over strictly certified organic produce, where the quality was there and the price and seasonality made sense for our Kitchen.

We will have to wait until May to see amounts of product substantial enough to convene an auction come to market, but I am very excited about combining our goal-in-progress of establishing zero green waste in the Kitchen (in partnership with Troy Gardens—first deliveries of compostable green waste slated for May/June) with a big push to expand our inclusion of Wisconsin produce in the Deli offerings. We plan to feature profiles of the farmers we buy from in the Deli along with the “100% local” salads discussed in last month’s Reader (see www.willystreet.coop/article/6391). Leading into our second store and the Eat Local Challenge, it’s going to be quite a year for the Willy Street Co-op Kitchen and Deli!