Some faculty members seriously committed to bringing in far more local food to the program approached me to facilitate. I am not being paid by them. I’m doing what I can because I think it’s the right thing to do. That’s it. But that’s about where the simplicity of the situation ends.
Surprisingly, this is a potentially complex challenge. The school has been trying on various fronts and failing. Why? Because [forgive some generalizations throughout] the food service industry supply chain and the seasonal/local food supply chain are not well connected. Their needs differ. Industry tends to plan fixed menus for months at a time, with specific ingredients, and require suppliers to fill orders on demand. The seasonal, local food supply works more like: seasonal ingredient is available, want some? Come and get it.
So you have producers with fantastic product completely accessible to individual consumers at farmers’ markets, that are elusive to industry – a tad counter-intuitive. Seems the consumer’s willing to go get it, industry not so much. A small producer may have the best product around, but isn’t set up for [or want] distribution, and frankly needs to be on the farm farming, not driving their product around. So distribution is an industry problem. Not to say it’s the farmer’s problem – many are quite happy thank-you-very-much getting top dollar [sans trade discount or middle men] selling direct one day a week at a vibrant farmer’s market. Less headache driving product around, better margin, more flexible consumer, more time to farm. I get it.
This leaves the industry in a weird position – they need specific things to meet the demands of their businesses, but the farms often don’t offer it exactly how they want or need it, or when they want or need it. And the relationship dies there. It’s too bad. The romantic notion of chef going to market to source what’s the most exciting seasonal item to put on the plate that day is good for the marketing department, but not the operations department. It’s far easier to order through a Sysco, get product in the size, quantity, and the day you want. Path of least resistance wins, local food objective fails. The good news with NAIT is they have some staff who are willing to effect some change, even if it means volunteering time to go pick up product at a local market to get the job done. Crazy idea that – chef going to market.
So for now, I’ve agreed to help them figure out what top-shelf local product is available, from whom, when. Plan is to meet with faculty in a month or two to discuss. I’ve also been asked to be involved with student tours of local farms, offering guidance with charcuterie [esp game], taking students foraging, and more. We’ll see how much of this is possible given my increasingly limited time.
More on this as things progress – just wanted to start on this topic as I know some folks [including producers] are curious. If you are a local producer that wants to supply to NAIT, send me an email.