In mid-October, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel of foodservice supply chain partners at an unusual conference on Sustainable Regional Sourcing held at Yale University. This first meeting, hosted by Yale Dining, is one of many initiatives that’ve been undertaken at the encouragement of the university-wide Yale Sustainability Project.

What made the gathering remarkable was that its main focus was not on the issues that usually tend to dominate such events. Yes, there were presentations and dicussions that explored farm-to-operator relationships, definitions of “local,” the abiguities of ingredient sourcing, GAP standards, liability issues, urban farming and so on.

But in its larger vision, the conference sought to keep a focus on the potential for food demand aggregation among college, healthcare and other noncommercial operators along the Northeast’s institution-dense I-95 corridor.

That potential is significant, and far more so than most people at first assume. Many of these organizations, especially in higher education, have developed highly committed sustainability programs at the individual level. If a consortium representing just a small percentage of them could establish common specifications and procurement commitment for food products or product categories, that influence could help sustain regional suppliers and providers and help make these programs and products more cost effective for institutions. It could also bring more efficiency to the regional supply chain—a sustainability goal in its own right.

Still, that’s a tall order.

Sustainable food sourcing for large institutions is inherently different from that for individual restaurants or even single organizations. Given their operating margins, labor and menu flexibility and ability to make one-off commitments, smaller entities can take advantage of many opportunities that are not practical for volume feeding.

The large purchasing volume of institutions represents a huge challenge as well as an opportunity. Indeed, the local farm production and other product sources now tapped by individual sustainability programs are often over-subscribed. As more organizations look to source from the same limited number of local providers, supply and demand forces tend to raise prices and create supply shortages. Agricultural production remains subject to the vagaries of nature and can be unpredictable, complicating the picture further.

In addition, individual institutions have often found it difficult to agree on common policies and standards in the past, not the least because of the independent nature of their institutional cultures and academic and student communities.  

There are other barriers. Individual arrangements with regional processors (for example, to specify and obtain a preservative-free product or a specific pack of fresh-cut produce) usually will not generate the kind of volume that results in optimal production line efficiencies. The same issues arise in distribution, where competing demand for available warehouse slots and low case velocity make it costly for distributors to justify stocking requirements.

Finally, the region itself lacks processing capacity, whether for produce, protein or other products. Many regional processors have closed their doors over the last 50 years as plant and equipment have aged and the food industry has consolidated in other parts of the country.

But with all of that said, great opportunity remains. If a critical mass of committed demand can be developed for just a few high volume products, and the logistics of procurement aggregation worked out, a model might be established that could lead to additional products, additional demand and even regional development. That could help establish new growing and processing capacity in the region and in turn support jobs, local growers, providers and supply chains.

That challenge—to create regional market opportunities based on a common desire for a more sustainable food supply chain—was the vision on the conference table. If the institutional participants can maintain a focus on this approach and move it forward, their supply partners and market forces will do the rest. Stay tuned.