Nearly a quarter of the food purchased by the dining services at Montana State University comes from producers in the state, the school says. The increased percentage purchased reflects a relatively new emphasis on local food at MSU, brought about in part by student wishes, says Todd Jutila, director of food services.
"When we've surveyed the students, local food has been high on their wish list," Jutila notes. "They've let us know that it's important."
In 2004, MSU developed its "Montana Made Program," designed to increase the amount of local products purchased. Since then, the percentage of annual products University Food Services buys from Montana farmers and producers has steadily increased to a record 23 percent in the last fiscal year. Last year, the program also marked a milestone when it surpassed the $1 million mark in local products purchased.
Jutila is proud of what he calls the remarkably high percentage of food purchased in state, given that many institutions have a goal of 20 percent locally purchased by the year 2020. And, he expects the percentage of food purchased from in-state farmers and producers to continue to increase. He also attributes the university's local food commitment to a widespread belief that supporting local farmers and producers is important.
"In earlier days, most food came from local farms and producers," Jutila notes. "As the population grew, it became easier and cheaper to go to mass producers, but now we're reverting back to buying as much as you can from locals. As time goes on, the availability of local products grows bigger, too.
"We're proud to be keeping more dollars in the community," he adds.
Local food tends to cost more, Jutila says, but a perceived higher value and quality of food makes the additional cost worth it.
"It's difficult to cite exact numbers because the sources often vary, but any price variance of local foods is outweighed by the health benefits, smaller environmental impact and the positive effect on the local economy," he explains.
In addition, some costs can be recovered through savings on transportation, since products purchased closer to town aren't as expensive to ship. For example, the university recently began purchasing food from Towne's Harvest Garden, MSU's teaching farm located one mile west of campus.
Other recent University Food Services initiatives include the Local Food Fair. Now in its sixth year, it is set for April 17 and will feature guest speakers, discussions and a local food showcase where vendors, distributors and producers display their products.
"There is an important educational aspect to this fair," says Stephanie Hanson, marketing and sustainability manager at University Food Services. "A lot of people don't understand the benefits of local food, and this fair provides great information."