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Campuses drive local food purchasing: survey

Colleges and universities are driving local food procurement in the public sphere, according to a new survey.

The survey, conducted by Farm to Cafeteria Canada, is the first of its kind to look at local food purchasing by public institutions across Canada. In total, 239 representatives from colleges and universities, public schools and health care facilities responded.

Out of these three institutional groups, college and university campuses not only had the largest food budgets (50 per cent of those surveyed spend between one and five million per year on food) but they were spending a significant proportion of that money on local food. Nearly one quarter of those surveyed said they spend between 25 and 49 per cent of their budget locally. (For the purpose of this survey, local was defined as being grown and processed within the province or territory.)

A whopping 92 per cent of colleges and universities surveyed said they provided local food in some capacity. Nineteen per cent said they have a policy addressing local food procurement, and 14 per cent said some percentage of local food procurement is stipulated in purchase contracts.

"I would say, if your interest is on generating revenue for the local food economy, campuses are the way to go," said Joanne Bays, national manager of Farm to Cafeteria Canada. "Their budgets are quite a bit higher, and it seems that campuses are ready. They're working at it."

Bays points to the University of British Columbia as a prime example. Steve Golob, residence chef at UBC's Vanier Hall has been instrumental in driving the university's local food procurement policies. UBC purchases about $10,000 worth of produce from the UBC farm, and 50 per cent of the food it purchases comes from within 150 miles of campus.

Hospitals and other health care facilities provided the least local food of the three groups, but still, 66 per cent of those surveyed saying that some local food was provided. Forty-two per cent of health care facilities surveyed said that they have annual food budgets of between $500,000 and $1.5 million, but the majority are spending less than 10 per cent of that on local food.

Public schools, on the other hand, showed some of the most activity on the smallest budgets. Three-quarters of those who responded on behalf of a public school said that local food is provided in some capacity, even though most (70 per cent) have food budgets under $60,000 per year and 30 per cent have less than $10,000 per year to spend on food.

Most of the local food activity in schools is combined with educational activities like composting or gardening lessons and most is run by parent or teacher volunteers, according to the survey.

"If the interest is in ensuring more fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, or in skills and knowledge around nutrition and food, then the best place to put your money is in schools," said Bays. "They're doing an awesome job with the little bit of money they have."

Bays said she was "astounded" by the breadth of activity around local food procurement in Canada, citing examples from Nunavut to Fredericton.

"The time really is ripe for a national organization like Farm to Cafeteria Canada," she said. "We've got all this great stuff happening around the country."

Farm to Cafeteria and other organizations are urging the federal government to make local food a priority in public institutions. Food Secure Canada, which helped make food policy a federal election issue in 2011, sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper urging him to address the food crises Canada faces (including obesity, hunger, and loss of farmland) in his Speech from the Throne Oct. 16 – which happens to coincide with World Food Day.

Colleen Kimmett is an editor at The Tyee.

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