Sodexo, an international food service company based in France that operates in 80 countries, this month pledged to buy more Vermont-produced food for the colleges, schools and businesses it serves in the state. The company predicted its "Vermont First Pledge" will lead to more agriculture-based jobs while providing customers fresh, high-quality food.
"It's good that they're finally doing something about that," said Ryan Nordle, a University of Vermont freshman who was eating at Brennan's, one of the food service sites Sodexo manages at UVM. "I don't know if it's as much about taste, necessarily, as it is just about the principle of it."
Sodexo serves about 34,000 meals every day in Vermont--at the state colleges, UVM, Norwich University, St. Michael's College, and several other client sites. The company said its customers are demanding more fresh, healthy, local ingredients. It added that it was challenged by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and the University of Vermont to grow the percentage of food items it sources from Vermont, as a way to help grow the state's agriculture economy.
Sodexo said it spent $16.2-million on Vermont ingredients in 2013, noting that represents a 15 percent increase over the year before. The company could not say what percentage of its food products served in Vermont originate in Vermont, but did say it expects additional increases for some time to come. The pledge will include the hiring of a local foods coordinator to develop relationships with growers and support the purchasing of local food, the company said.
Of course, appreciation for local foods is nothing new in Vermont, where it seems everyone knows at least one farmer, and has been buying from them for years. But what's different about this pledge is it's coming from a multi-national corporation. Sodexo has huge buying power and will be placing orders many Vermont farmers aren't used to. Brennan's alone uses 1,400 pounds of potatoes a week, Melissa Zelazny, Sodexo's UVM operations manager said.
"That power of their ability to take that demand and source that locally drives our economy," Chuck Ross, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture said last Thursday, at the announcement of the pledge. "Sodexo, a multinational company, at some level, has become a Vermont company today making the pledge to us that they're going to work with all of us to help us grow our economy and our community and supply the product we all want."
Farmer Melissa Mazza, who manages Sam Mazza's Farm in Colchester, told New England Cable News the only predictable thing about farming is its unpredictability. But Mazza said she expects this plan will mean more sales for her. "There's a sense of security," she said.
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Mazza noted some growers may at first find it hard to expand to meet the needs of the institutional food system. "I think if somebody is a true entrepreneur, they're going to find the means to make it happen," she said. "But you have to have it in your soul."
Zelazny told NECN that Vermont wholesalers, such as Black River Produce of North Springfield, will deliver most of the goods. Zelazny admitted buying local can be pricier than other methods of sourcing, but if done carefully, and at the right scale, costs shouldn't be passed onto consumers.
"We've got to do it strategically," Zelazny said. "Farmers need two to three years to plan, potentially, if they want to scale up and produce an item that's consistent and makes sense for their business model."
Sodexo said it believes the pledge could be replicated in other states that share Vermont's values around local agriculture. The company also said one day, the pledge may result in more Vermont-labeled products getting wider national distribution.