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Local Sourcing Can Be Complicated – We're Up to the Challenge

Environment |  9.28.2021

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, news and social media have reported on its disproportionate damage to local businesses. In turn, local sourcing is more top of mind than ever.

“People have become more diligent about understanding what’s happening in their communities,” shares Natily Santos, Vice President of Specialty Supply Chain. “Our clients increasingly want to know how we can support their local sourcing efforts.”

Local and sustainable sourcing has long been part of our company DNA, accounting for $204.8 million in FY2020 spending alone. With that buying power comes a responsibility to catalyze meaningful shifts in the food ecosystem. Read on to learn how our supply chain team makes local sourcing successful at scale.

Local sourcing remains high on the nation’s consciousness, driving demand for farm-fresh food purchasing and other ways to support local economies.

Intentional Collaboration

Our company's sustainability plan strives to do right by people and the planet. This includes sourcing ethically, inclusively, and responsibly—so we increase access to economic opportunities in the communities we serve while minimizing our impact on the environment. This strong foundation must be personalized for every account, as true impact is only possible if we have a full picture of the procurement possibilities in each market.

The local sourcing conversation seeks to answer crucial questions: Which metrics are most important to the client? What products are available in the market? Who are the viable suppliers? Which local businesses are owned and operated by people from diverse backgrounds, such as black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC)? How can we onboard even more local suppliers to our supply chain?

Shared goals help this complex process proceed smoothly. “As we have these supply chain conversations, there’s often a lot of overlap between our priorities and what the client is looking for,” Santos observes.

Up to the Challenge

Sourcing locally for a large company or institution isn’t as easy as a trip to your Saturday farmers’ market. Here are several common challenges and examples of solutions we have implemented across our business.

1. “Local” means different things to different people.

Historically, “local” was defined as food grown, raised, or caught within a certain area. It’s useful to be specific: Our company defines local to a 250-mile radius, well below the 400-mile standard established by the 2008 Farm Bill. State borders and geography can also come into play.

Several factors can influence local sourcing in a given market. We define local as food grown, raised, or caught within 250 miles of a client location, which is narrower than the industry standard.

The conventional definition also excluded locally processed foods, such as roasted coffee and baked goods. That, too, is changing. “Today’s clients and consumers are interested in what we are doing to support mom-and-pop shops, entrepreneurs, and restaurants in their market. With that in mind, we seek to not only increase locally sourced products, but also work with local businesses to drive positive economic impact in the communities we serve,” Santos explains.

With “local” well defined, we can build a program that suits the client’s goals. This evolved definition is what incentivized several South Carolina schools to develop a custom pizza sauce with Seaside Grown, a local company that happens to be led by a Clemson alum. The sauce is made entirely with local tomatoes grown along the coast, to be enjoyed by college students throughout the state.

2. There are many players on the scene (and that’s a good thing).

Even we, as a multinational company, rely on others’ expertise to move our local sourcing commitment forward. As a prime example, Santos points to our brand-new, three-year partnership with the nonprofit Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI).

Beginning October 1, 2021, all our New England higher education, healthcare, and business dining accounts will shift all fresh and frozen whitefish purchases to those responsibly caught/grown and processed in the region. GMRI will verify the fish is traceable to the Gulf of Maine region and meets responsible harvesting criteria.

Our new collaboration with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) marks the first time we’ve worked with such an organization on a market-specific seafood sourcing initiative.

Santos lauds how the GMRI partnership will complement our broader sustainable seafood policies. “Our New England accounts are going to be directly involved in supporting local fishermen and promoting a healthy ecosystem,” she says.

3. Growing seasons can be predictably unpredictable.

Our clients may follow a fiscal year or academic calendar, but Mother Nature can have other ideas. Most people understand produce is grown seasonally and only in specific regions, and that farming is subject to weather, pests, and other forces. But that doesn’t necessarily curb their desire for fresh salad greens in January.

To solve for this challenge, we’ve implemented flexible programs that manage expectations without compromising menu innovation or quality. Thanks to our robust supply chain, we can follow a local-first approach and supplement from other sources as needed. “There may be times of year where there are fewer local options available. To offer a good product mix, there has to be a balance of local, regional, and national solutions available across our supply chain, as well as focus on innovation and supplier collaboration,” says Santos.

One such initiative is the University of Kentucky’s (UK’s) Salad Bar Program, which prides itself on showcasing the state’s seasonal fruits and vegetables. But when the growing season ends, or a storm interferes with local production, we’re able to swap in conventionally grown products without disrupting operations. Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative is testing new culinary applications for Kernza®, a perennial grain whose high yield offers great advantages over traditional annual crops.

Micro-gardens, like those offered by Farmshelf, are another popular solution among our higher education and business dining clients. The hydroponic garden installations allow their kitchens to grow fresh produce year-round, augmenting what they receive from the formal supply chain.

4. Farmers need security, while institutions require consistency.

Businesses throughout the supply chain need to be able to plan ahead. That’s where we come in, providing long-term purchasing commitments that bridge the gap. These contracts help local farms and businesses prepare for the coming season without overproducing while our clients receive the exact ingredients required for their dining programs, often with some cost savings. The UK Dining Salad Bar Program, for example, accounts for a 35,000-pound produce commitment each year.

Whole Animal Programs can take this a step further while also minimizing food waste. For example, Loyola University Chicago purchases whole cows and pigs from Seven Sons Farm in Indiana, using up as much meat as possible with a single contract. Other schools, such as Eastern Kentucky University, are able to raise their own beef on campus farms. Either way, our chefs gain consistent access to a broad variety of cuts to inspire their menus—a welcome culinary challenge.

Innovative supply chain initiatives, like Whole Animal Programs, are mutually beneficial for farmers and institutions, while also helping to minimize food waste..

5. Consumers seek accountability.

Today’s consumers look for proof of where their food comes from. To make good on our sustainability commitments, we have formed relationships with third parties who can help trace the origins of our food and verify our adherence to sustainability standards.

A few years ago, we worked with FarmLogix to develop Open Fields, a proprietary technology platform designed to identify and report on sustainable ingredients and purchases. Since FY2017, FarmLogix has documented over $1.1 billion in local and sustainable spending for our U.S. operations. It does so across more than 80 attributes, so each account can generate reports that align with their specific local or sustainable sourcing goals.

Data transparency in local sourcing is critical for measuring success. We are continuously enhancing our supplier data requirements and our reporting process to enable more advanced tracking of local sourcing opportunities and progress towards our goals. “People want to understand the whole story of what they buy,” explains Santos. “With this information in hand, we can better tell those stories to our clients and guests.”

6. Local businesses need a hand with scaling up.

“Going local” at the institutional level takes resources—and that can be a barrier on both sides of the equation. As a food service partner with a database of more than 5,000 small or diverse suppliers, we can identify and cultivate those relationships. Our Local Restaurant Row program was designed with this idea in mind, bringing neighborhood favorites to dozens of client locations.

We’re simultaneously working to grow the pipeline of suppliers and distributors that meet our wholesale supply chain standards. For instance, we rolled out a program to provide small businesses with mentoring and access to subject matter expertise on essential topics like quality assurance. And in major cities like Chicago, we’re training the next generation of minority business leaders.

A multi-faceted supply chain helps our clients plan around local growing seasons without compromising menu innovation or quality. .
These efforts have a cascading effect, Santos notes: “When we source the right match of local suppliers for a single account, we can expand the local supplier solutions for multiple accounts in the region, across lines of business.”

Intricate Infrastructure

The local sourcing landscape is bound to evolve as the economy recovers and as definitions of “local” become ever more granular. We stand ready to innovate, leveraging our extensive data, technology, and supply chain relationships.

“From farm to plate, there is significant amount of complexity in the local supply chain—but our commitment does not waiver,” Santos says. “Our procurement and supply chain makes local sourcing a priority to ensure we are optimizing the full reach of our networks and, most importantly, supporting our local supplier and business communities whenever we can.”

By proactively considering every possibility, we can create customized local sourcing plans that suit each client and improve the communities where we live and work.