UMass serving up fresher, less expensive produce from local farms

By Stephen Sellner

MCT

Jesse Kummer enjoys an apple everyday on his way to class. The University of Massachusetts sophomore grabs one every day after finishing lunch at Hampshire Dining Commons. What Kummer doesn’t know, is that his apple a day comes from the Czajkowski Farm located just 3.5 miles from campus.

UMass Dining Services has gradually increased its selection of locally grown produce into its dining halls over the past few years. Today, UMass purchases 27 percent of its produce from local farms, up from 15 percent in 2006.

The University has turned to a number of farms within 50 miles of campus as an alternative to produce previously bought from larger corporate farms as far away as California. Staying local has added freshness to the food selection in the dining commons, cut the cost of transporting food and provided a more reliable business partner while supporting local farmers and setting an example for other universities.

Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at UMass Dining, has stressed the importance of providing quality food for students over the past seven to eight years. Part of that plan is increasing local produce to its menu to offer students with fresh food to choose from.

“Fresh means quality,” said Toong. “Fresh means [it’s] better for you and healthier for you.”

Garett DiStefano, manager of Berkshire Dining Commons at UMass, said that a recent survey showed 72 percent of students want more local produce in its dining choices.

Devin Dondero, a sophomore at UMass, approved of incorporating fresher food into the dining commons.

“It’s definitely a good thing for students, especially since it’s fresher food, better food and healthier food,” he said.

The benefits don’t stop at the quality of produce; in most cases, it’s cheaper to buy from local farms than having produce shipped from larger corporations across the country, said DiStefano.

“Believe it or not, about 60 percent of all costs related to produce are transportation,” said DiStefano. Additional costs such as trucking and packing plants are factors that contribute to the price of purchasing produce from across the country.

UMass does the majority of its local business with farmer Joe Czajkowski, who owns the 300-acre Czajkowski Farm in Hadley. Prior to the recent surge of local produce, UMass only bought squash from Czajkowski. Now, UMass Dining Services purchases a wide range of produce, including honey, jam, pickles and turkey to name a few.

“He’s able to provide one-stop shopping for us,” said Toong.

UMass is not the only one benefiting from purchasing local food; it allows local farmers to market their produce better, said Czajkowski.

“It’s helped quite a bit,” said Czajkowski. “It gives us more market and more opportunity to sell local food right in the area.”

In addition to the added profit, UMass provides a reliable business partner for local farmers, according to Interim Purchasing and Marketing Manager Christopher Howland. Howland said, some customers have gone years without paying their bills to Czajkowski, with some owing as much as $60,000.

“He knows with UMass, we’ll get him the business and we’ll pay him,” said Howland.

The school displays signs in its dining halls saying, “Be a local hero,” to encourage students to buy locally grown produce to give their money back to the Amherst community.

“The people who live in this local area are getting that money directly so that’s the type of hero we’re talking about,” said DiStefano.

UMass is also working to encourage students to eat healthier with a fresher selection of produce. According to DiStefano, students have eaten more fruits and vegetables since incorporating local produce instead of choosing french fries at every meal.

“We know we have students here for four years, but we also want to make sure that we pass on some lessons to them and expose them to things that they otherwise would not have,” said DiStefano.

Next year, UMass plans to increase its selection of local produce to 30 percent, said Howland. And with the wide range of benefits, the University will continue to increase its purchase of local produce in the coming years.

“We want to be setting an example for others,” said Toong. “UMass is a big school, but we can take the leadership role to aggressively purchase as much local [produce] as possible.”

That’s good news for Kummer, who will have plenty of fresh apples to choose from in the future for his walk to class.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected]