The U of A and Aramark: Getting more Alberta food on more campus plates
The University of Alberta (U of A) has been an active member of the Alberta Flavour Learning lab since the group was formed in 2014. Both main campus and the Augustana campus have committed to the Learning Lab’s goal of getting more Alberta food on more plates. This profile focuses on dining services at the U of A’s main campus, which is organized separately from that of Augustana. In what follows, we look at how the U of A is working with its primary food service provider Aramark to support local, sustainably produced food on campus.
The U of A’s main campus is home to over 39,000 students. Feeding that many students, not to mention additional staff and guests, is no easy task. And the work doesn’t stop with the end of the school year. Once the students leave in the spring, conference season starts, and campus dormitories fill up with people from across Canada and the world. As Lorraine Huntley, Support Services Coordinator in Ancillary Services told me, “in the summer we turn into the largest hotel in Edmonton.” Over the years, the U of A has provided full conference services for several large events, including the Canadian Gymnastics Championships in 2016. Through their participation in the Alberta Flavour Learning Lab, the U of A is working to leverage its scale, influence, and buying power to support Alberta food.
Unlike some other Edmonton post-secondary campuses like NAIT or Augustana, The U of A’s main campus does not run its own food service operations. Since 1994, the main campus has contracted its food services to Aramark, an international food service company serving a wide variety of institutions around the world. Aramark works closely with the food distributer, and fellow Learning Lab member, Sysco to provide food services to students, staff, and guests on behalf of the U of A. Earlier this year I sat down with Lorraine Huntley and Shilpi Gupta, Director of Operations for Aramark, to discuss some of the ways the U of A and Aramark are working together to get more local food on more campus plates. I was interested in the successes and challenges faced by the university and Aramark in pursuit of their local food procurement goals.
Shilpi Gupta and Lorraine Huntley
Early on in our conversation, both Lorraine and Shilpi underscored the importance of local food. As Lorraine put it, the U of A is “striving always to source local whenever we can.” Shilpi added that buying local is a “key benchmark” for Aramark. Aramark works closely with Sysco to bring high quality local Alberta food to the U of A. Every week, U of A chefs use ingredients such as ham from Pine Haven Colony, potatoes from Little Potato Company, bread from Crust Craft bakery, and mushrooms from Prairie Mushrooms, to feed thousands of hungry students. In addition to local food procurement through Sysco, Aramark has partnered with the likes of DaVinci Gelato and Filistix to support local food businesses on campus. The U of A even produces some of its own food, with Lister Market offering fresh greens year-round through its Canadian designed Urban Cultivator. The kitchen uses the fresh, super-local herbs grown in the small indoor garden as ingredients in a number of menu items, such as its popular pesto chicken.
The U of A’s Urban Cultivator provides fresh, hyper-local greens for students and guests all year long
Lorraine and Shilpi both reported witnessing increased student demand and awareness around local food in the last few years. However, they also know that Dining Services has to balance buying local with other priorities, such as cost, nutrition, and taste. As Lorraine noted, “for today’s students, nutrition is a top concern, more so than local.” As students become more knowledgeable about food, and as their tastes and buying patterns change, Dining Services is continually trying to meet demand while keeping costs down. Lorraine added that, “more than ever, students are concerned with what’s on their plate. They want to know what’s in it, and if it’s healthy.” In response to demands for healthier food options, the university has taken a number of steps, including the recent creation of a dedicated vegan food station. One challenge with foregrounding “local” above other priorities is the lack of a large and identifiable group of students who demand locally sourced options. Whereas there are segments of the student population demanding vegetarian, vegan, and Halal options, the demand for local food is more diffuse. As Shilpi put it, “local is a feather in the cap, but it’s not a top priority for many students.” That said, both Shilpi and Lorraine reiterated that the demand for local is definitely on the rise. Dining Services at the U of A wants to grow that demand, by demonstrating the value of local to students. One of the ways they do this is through clear labelling of “locally grown” (i.e. Alberta) food products. For example, the cafeteria’s stir-fry bar includes 8 or 9 vegetables, about half of which are grown right here in Alberta. Along with giving students the option of choosing Alberta grown veggies, this type of labelling has the added benefit of educating students about the kinds of food that can grow in Alberta. As Lorraine said, “we are increasingly in a position of educating students about what is local and why it matters.”
“Local” is clearly important for the U of A and Aramark, but buying local presents real challenges for larger institutions. For one, buying local sometimes comes with a higher price tag. As Shilpi told me, “I would love to buy only local tomatoes, but it’s not feasible when I can buy a similar product grown somewhere else for a quarter the price. Supporting local is great, but it has to work for the pocketbook too.” In addition to higher costs, Shilpi and Lorraine mentioned other challenges around local food procurement, such as the need for reliable and consistent product, as well as food safety certification. Overcoming these challenges is not easy, but both Shilpi and Lorraine pointed to the efforts of the Alberta Flavour Learning Lab as an important step towards real change in supporting the institutional procurement of local food. As Shilpi put it, the “Learning Lab is a great opportunity. I think of it as a classroom that is helping us all understand the needs of local farmers and vendors, and to create an infrastructure to link local food into larger supply chains.” Lorraine emphasized the “community” aspect of the Learning Lab, citing examples of knowledge sharing and cooperation, “not only in relation to the challenges of buying local, but also to food waste and sustainability.” For Lorraine, a major benefit of the Learning Lab is the bringing together of diverse actors in search of common solutions. As she put it, “we’re all in this together, and the Learning Lab reminds us that we often don’t have to re-invent the wheel.” Both Lorraine and Shilpi also emphasized the importance of the Learning Lab’s regional approach to local food, with Lorraine noting, “if we limit local food to the 100-mile diet, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do to at this scale.”
“Locally Grown” is one of the labels used to help U of A students make informed food choices
Buying local is one of many food priorities for Dining services at the U of A. In speaking with Shilpi and Lorraine, it was clear that there are many other sustainable food initiatives that the university and Aramark are involved in. For example, all of the seafood used by Aramark is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. In addition, Aramark’s food purchasing policy includes commitments to buying ethical coffee and tea (certified as either organic and Fairtrade, or Rainforest Alliance), as well as a commitment to using only cage-free eggs by 2025. The U of A is also the first Aramark serviced institution in Canada to use LeanPath technology to help minimize food waste on campus. It is initiatives like these that contributed to the U of A’s world-class gold rating in the 2017 STARS report. Yet, it is also clear from the report that Aramark’s goals of sustainable food procurement, and in particular their commitment to buying local, present some significant challenges.
Forging a path towards a truly sustainable, regionally-centered food system is a challenge no institution can overcome alone. The purchasing power of institutions like the U of A provides an incredible opportunity to scale-up local food, but many other pieces have to be in place for this opportunity to be fully realized. Towards the end of our interview, Lorraine noted that, while not the highest priority, the goal of buying local increasingly “weaves its way through almost everything we do, every decision we make.” Both Lorraine and Shilpi were optimistic that, with more people recognizing the many benefits of buying local, and with the continued efforts of the Alberta Flavour Learning Lab to help coordinate interests and logistics, the U of A will be able to get even more Alberta food on more campus plates.