Claire
America’s first-ever farm-to-institution food service cooperative wants to take over the University of Maine System’s dining services from Aramark. It’s a long shot. But they might just win by losing

Going Rogue Middleman Plate

Tomorrow and Thursday, December 9 and 10, a small group of Maine food entrepreneurs, organizers, and activists will travel to the University of Maine’s flagship Orono campus. Their goal: to persuade the University of Maine System’s board of trustees that their organization, the Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative, should be granted the food service contract for six of the seven campuses that make up the University of Maine System. If their bid is accepted, they’ll be the nation’s first farm-to-institution food service cooperative to serve a university system on multiple campuses.

The flagship campus in Orono, shown in yellow above, handles its dining services in-house. The six other schools will be covered by the contract winner

It’s an audacious case to make. The current holder of the contract is Philadelphia-based Aramark, a global foodservice provider and facilities manager with 270,000 employees worldwide, revenues of just under $15 billion, and, among its client roster, 2,200 colleges, universities, and K-12 school districts. Aramark has held the $12.5 million contract with UMS for a decade, but it expires at the end of June 2016. The Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative has been in existence for less than half a year and has held exactly zero university food service contracts.

Nonetheless, thanks to heightened awareness of local food and the financial impact of keeping the management—and the profits—of the food service contract in-state, the cooperative is a finalist for the contract. (UMS, as a matter of policy, has not revealed the other finalists, but they are widely presumed to be Aramark and Sodexo, a France-based company with 380,000 employees working at 34,000 sites in 80 countries and revenues of roughly $20 billion.)

A win for the co-op could change things far beyond Maine’s borders.

Can Maine Farm & Sea win the contract? Not likely, though it’s not out of the question. But win or lose, the group has come forward with a new way of thinking about how local food producers and institutions can work together—one that will be talked about, imitated, and refined for years to come. They’ve added a new question that every local food advocate will need to start asking: Why work so hard to sell food into a system that doesn’t particularly want us, when we could take the system over and change it into something that benefits our customers, our region, and ourselves?

Seriously, why?

Hearts, minds and track records

Local producers can win the hearts of students, persuade the faculty, and inspire the administration, but in order to win a major university outsourcing contract, they need the procurement office to accommodate: When the office issues a request for proposals (RFP) asking potential vendors to explain why they should get the contract, local producers need it to be based on standards of judgment that give them a chance of succeeding. If the standards are all about cost and track record, the Sodexos and Aramarks are almost impossible to beat.

In May 2015, the University of Maine signaled that it might be interested in making that kind of accommodation, when its board of trustees approved an environmental and safety procurement policy that in part allowed “reasonable preference when feasible for food goods produced sustainably, in a manner that minimizes transportation to the consuming location, or with other such environmental attributes or advantages as may be available in the marketplace, while balancing those benefits against price and other considerations.”

University of Maine students demonstrators demanding local food

Farm to Institution New England University of Maine students demonstrate in the name of local food

The trick was to build that “reasonable preference” into the contracting process. In the months leading up to the August 2015 release of the RFP, Maine and New England-based advocates met with trustees and the procurement department to influence procurement policy. One stakeholder group emerged as a particularly influential player: the Maine Food for the UMaine System Coalition, which was organized by a steering committee that included Farm to Institution New England (FINE) and Real Food Challenge, and endorsers like American Farmland Trust, the John Merck Fund, Slow Money Maine, and the University of Maine Dining Services itself. The group’s representatives presented recommendations to the Office of Strategic Procurement and the Food Service Request for Proposal Committee in June.

Among their priorities were: a commitment to 20 percent Maine food and 20 percent “real food” (defined by student-led Real Food Challenge as “local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources”) by 2020, the establishment of a food working group, transparency in tracking, and the initiation of supply chain partnerships with Maine producers.

If the standards are all about cost and track record, the Sodexos and Aramarks are almost impossible to beat.

It was clearly an opening for what was, at that time, not much more than a loose network of Maine food activists.

“Part of what spurred Maine Farm & Sea to form was us forming this coalition to influence the RFP,” says Riley Neugebauer, Farm to College project manager at FINE. “I’m sure they had been brainstorming either way on things to be involved in, but this presented a unique opportunity. From there, they mobilized around the concept.”

On August 31, 2015, the UMS Board of Trustees issued its formal request for proposals, which included a commitment to purchasing 20 percent locally sourced food by 2020, starting with a minimum of 15 percent local food in the first year, followed by a one-percentage-point increase every year after. “Local” was defined in the RFP as “any food produced or harvested by a producer or processor, including in Maine, within 175 miles of the University of Maine System’s seven primary campuses.”

That’s a change. A typical RFP for a large food service contract “would specify cost, budget, payment agreements, training for employees—it would specify a lot of items but it wouldn’t go into detail as to some of the qualities of food that could be expounded on,” says John Turenne, an Aramark veteran who now serves as a consultant to help institutions buy more sustainably. “Like where does the food come from? Who are you supporting when you buy it? These institutions, in the past, just haven’t gone the extra mile to contract for better food. It’s usually just a lot of basic operating costs. They’ve never demanded details about the quality of food.” This RFP did.

The Maine Food for the UMaine System Coalition was organized by a steering committee that included Farm to Institution New England (FINE), Real Food Challenge, Environment Maine, UMaine students, and Maine Farmland Trust; endorsers included American Farmland Trust, the John Merck Fund, Slow Money Maine, and the University of Maine Dining Services itself

More important, the 100-point scoring system for proposals allocated a total of 20 points for a would-be contractor’s plans for using local and sustainable food and for its estimated impact on the Maine economy. All of these were areas where a local alternative could outshine the food service giants.

That is, if there were a local alternative that could bid for a contract that had as much to do with management, marketing, and logistics as it did with food.

From “self-op” to outsourced

Not so long ago, colleges and universities—and prisons and hospitals—mostly ran their own dining facilities. That started changing in the 1960s and 1970s, says Turenne.

“Non-commercial institutions felt that the complexities of managing that department in their infrastructure became more and more complicated, costly, and arduous, with labor issues and accounts payable, accounts receivable, labor laws, anything and everything that goes into running a food business,” he says. “An institute of higher learning would say, ‘We’re not in that business. We don’t have the expertise to manage that. Let’s hire someone who does.’”

The tasks the universities wanted to shed are part of the reason that food service is dominated by a handful of giants. The job of running a university food program is enormous, as the UMS RFP makes clear. The RFP asks would-be contractors for detailed dining hall menus with allergen-free and healthy alternatives, monthly theme nights and special events, and marketing plans. Each campus also has retail dining facilities that need menus, portion information and prices, ideas for décor and signage (different for each campus). Then there’s the catering function: The company that wins the contract has to provide catering for on-campus events at levels ranging from a white-tablecloth dinner to a grab-and-go for a faculty meeting.

The list goes on and on: The RFP demands a track record with previous clients, references, résumés of key personnel, key performance indicators, proof of financial stability, proof of insurance . . .

It sounds like too big a job for a simple organization of farmers and fishers. But in fact, despite its name, Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative is much more than that. Founded in July this year, with the stated intention of trying to win the UMS contract, the cooperative intends to bring together not just farmers and fishers, but food service professionals, consumer-owners and others to create a full-service organization that will advance the cause of Maine food. The group’s leaders and advisers include several well-known names, including:

  • Ron Adams, the former food programs director of Portland Public Schools. During his tenure as head of the 7,000-student system, he opened a new, modernized central kitchen, introduced new programs including Maine Harvest Lunch, and increased spending on local food to 35 percent of the total food budget
  • Marada Cook, president of Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative, a $1 million–plus distribution company that purchases food from small Maine producers and sells it to retailers, restaurants, and institutions, and Leah Cook, Marada’s sister, and former head of operations at Crown O’ Maine
  • Jon Wiley, former procurement manager for Bowdoin College. During his tenure, between 2002 and 2012, Wiley increased local food purchases from 5% to 29% of total food spending, while at the same time, consistently earning awards and high rankings for the program. Maine Farm & Sea has hired Wiley on as procurement director, an upper-management role
2_Maine

Other leaders have expertise in marketing, fund-raising, small business development, and nutrition. Maine Farm & Sea may not be able to match the expertise and wealth of experience of a megacorporation, but to feed a medium-size university system, it looks more plausible than you’d immediately expect. Not a shoo-in, but not crazy.

“They did a good job of thinking through what was needed,” Neugebauer says, “including having a board that includes a distributor, people experienced with finance and policy, and people from the world of institutional food service. If they didn’t include direct food procurement people, I would have been concerned. But they have those people at the table, from K-12 and from colleges and universities.”

“They’re experienced, talented people,” says Sam May of Slow Money Maine. “I don’t think you could have done a much better job. I’m very impressed with how hard they’ve been working, and how well they’ve pulled off the bid submission. It’s a big job.”

Marada Cook, President of Crown O' Maine, pitches a group of potential consumer-ownersMaine Farm & Sea Cooperative

Marada Cook, president of Crown O’ Maine, explains how Maine Farm & Sea can help local farmers

An unprecedented model

If the Farm & Sea Cooperative wins the UMS contract, it would be a big deal. Though other college campuses have taken back their dining contracts from big operators, and large players like Aramark and Sodexo have committed to buying local food before, the cooperative’s bid represents something of a paradigm shift.

“I don’t think people had a real vision for a hybrid between a university running its own food service, which we call “self-op,” and the other end—outsourcing to these big companies,” Neugebauer says. “I don’t think anyone had thought carefully about what the in-between looks like: Where you still contract someone else to do it, but it isn’t this model for global corporate food service.”

Though other colleges have taken back their dining contracts, Maine Farm & Sea’s bid is a paradigm shift.

Certainly, an in-between player has never taken on a university system of this size—and that’s a good sign for local food.

“To my knowledge, it would be tremendously unprecedented. I don’t know of an example of something like this ever taking place, especially at this scope and size,” Turenne says. “It’s pretty significant, and it could be—I’d be cautious to say a tipping point—but the beginning of something very unique that could eventually lead to a tipping point.”

Representative Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, a vocal advocate for Maine’s farmers has a similar perspective: “If UMaine does this, and it’s the first time an organized group of farmers said, ‘This is our market opportunity, and we could have a dependable, predictable market to sell into,’ it could change how farmers traditionally relate to institutional buying. Everyone sees this as a big opportunity because of the desire institutions have to buy more healthy, locally grown produce.

U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D), for Maine's 1st Congressional District

U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D), for Maine’s 1st Congressional District

“People in Maine still value the idea that you bought from the farmer down the road. In my last campaign we did some polling about food and asked, ‘Do you support increasing access to local foods?’ Eighty-five percent said yes, including eight in ten Republicans. And when we added, ‘even if it costs more?’ still about two-thirds said yes.”

A win could change things far beyond Maine’s borders.

“Would it be a huge boon to the farm-to-institution movement?” May asks. “Yes, it would. We can’t underestimate the significance of their possibly winning the bid.… [And] it would be a big boon to the co-op movement. It’s important to reintroduce co-ops into our business consciousness—not everything has to be a really big, shareholder driven, publicly traded corporation.”

Meanwhile, the folks at Maine Farm & Sea are feeling bullish.

“You know, I’m feeling better and better all the time,” Adams says about the co-op’s chances against the incumbent multinational vendor. “The university posed some questions for the cooperative to follow up on, he says, and “They really wanted to dive into our proposal so I’m still thinking we’re probably 60/40.”

MaineMaine Farm & Sea Cooperative

Of course there’s a solid possibility the MFSC won’t succeed in wresting away the contract from an existing vendor already fully entrenched in bottom-line style university foodservice. UMS has the option of awarding contracts to more than one bidder, which gives the cooperative an additional shot at winning. But if the proposal is a total washout, Adams says, the cooperative will continue its efforts elsewhere.

“Our plan is that we would still be moving into other institutions around the state and we’d also be looking for other private schools, public schools and college and universities that would be having their contract come up,” he says. Even losing the UMS contract could attract enough public attention and give the cooperative enough credibility to land that important first client—maybe one of the state’s 43 degree-granting institutions, or a health system, or a K-12 school system. Neugebauer says the group has already been approached by several hospitals, nursing homes, and smaller colleges.

For those times when the co-op’s pitch to serve as a food service management company does not work, it will still have an alternative way of trying to upend institutional reliance on corporate contracts: it will be “engaging with [the institutions] directly as a consulting group to improve their use of local foods,” says Adams. “So that’s the nice part of having both of those channels.”

No matter what happens, there’s a sense that Maine Farm & Sea wins even by losing.

After the finalists present their proposals in person this week, there will be a follow-up technical review. The award is scheduled to be announced on January 15, 2016, with contract negotiations beginning at the end of February. The new contract will go into effect July 1, 2016.

 

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get a weekly dish of features, commentary and insight from the food movement’s front lines.