Putting Local Food First

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - April 22, 2009
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When Jim Donovan took over as athletic director at the University of Hawaii, I heard him say he was interested in bringing down the price of food at the concession stands. As the mom of two little boys who love to eat there, I watched with interest to see what would happen.

Then, in early January, prices came down and value “family packs” appeared on the menu at the concessions run by Sodexo. Now, instead of paying high prices for athletic event staples like hot dogs and soda, you can buy four hot dogs, four churros and four sodas for just $18.

“We wanted to be part of that vision that Jim had to reduce food prices and bring more people out to sporting events,” says Sodexo’s Mark Nakamoto. “At the end of the day, if we can get more people here buying more food, everybody wins.”

With a “local first” mantra and an agreement with distributor Armstrong Produce, Sodexo is making a commitment to the community and a difference to the economy.

“We have an agreement with Armstrong Produce to provide all of our facilities, including independent schools like Mid-Pac and Iolani, with local food first,” says Mark. So if you’re a student with an eco conscience, then there’s never been a better time for lunch. At the UH dining complex, among the recyclable plates and utensils made from cornstarch, there’s a menu that utilizes local produce and showcases the farmers.

“Students want more sustainable food, and we believe that farmers have a story to tell,” says Mark. “So it seemed like an obvious decision to put the two together.”

What that means on the UH campus is a colorful marketing campaign promoting local farmers. Banners hung by the salad bar show photographs and the names of family farmers, along with what they grow. “We want it to be personal,” says Mark. “We want the students to know where their food is coming from. Not every farmer wants his picture on a banner, but at least they know we are willing to tell their story and to buy what they grow.”

For now, the locally grown food on the UH menu is mostly produce. Eventually Sodexo would like to incorporate as much local food as they can into all of their culinary operations. “Our goal is to buy as much local food as possible,” Mark says.

And if you’re thinking that this is nice, but not something with long-term implications, then you might want to consider the buying power of Sodexo in Hawaii. “We probably purchase about $13 million to $15 million annually,” Mark says.

That’s a lot of local support.

“For us, we want this to go further than just the dining facilities,” says Mark. “We don’t just want to use the products, we want to educate people about them. Farmers are busy, but they are also passionate about what they do. We need to make people aware of how important agriculture is in our society.”

Starting small, though, has its rewards. “We do a salad bar at Waialae Elementary where they have a great health and nutrition program,” says Mark. “You’d be amazed at the little kids who will run to grab a salad at lunch. If we can help start them this young, they’re the people who’ll be looking to eat local food the rest of their lives.”

Happy eating!

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