College students, increasingly concerned about the source and quality of food they're eating, are demanding that schools purchase regional produce. That's forced major food-service companies to scramble for grass-roots alternatives -- and allowed some nimble regional rivals with good local connections to elbow their way into the $5 billion on-campus-dining market.
"There are so many organizations and different groups that have a cause," said Christy Cook, sustainability coordinator-Southeast region at Sodexho, a $7.3 billion company that also services health-care, government and corporate institutions. "One of the biggest trends I've seen is people are looking for more locally sourced produce, supporting the community and the farmers."
The catch, though, is while students are demanding organic and local fare, they aren't always sure what that means -- or how it tastes.
Some, Ms. Cook said, think local means within 10 miles or inside the city, while others think it means within 150 miles. Many of these students, she said, also like to have bananas and strawberries for breakfast -- all year long.
"You have to balance idealism and reality," she said, adding that education is critical. Ms. Cook often brings local farmers to talk to the school and sometimes arranges trips to local farms.
Jamie Moore, director-sourcing and sustainability at Eat'n Park Hospitality Group, said his college business has grown about 30% to 43 schools in the past six years. Mr. Moore attributes that to the launch of FarmSource, a pledge to source produce from within 125 miles. He added that each of his new accounts was taken from a major supplier: Sodexho, Aramark or Bon Appetit.
This year Sodexho has rolled out a platform of its own, PlanIt. The first step was a comprehensive sustainability-education program for management and clients. The program will also include a database of sustainable, local and organic products.
Spoiled? No, it's organic
Milk has certainly been a problem for Sodexho and many other suppliers. When the company, responding to a student movement, found a local supplier for client Denison University in Ohio, the new product didn't meet expectations.
"The students noticed that the flavors were different," said Ronnie Hinz, director-administrative services at Denison. "Some of the students at first said, 'I don't like this milk.'" Eventually the students adjusted.
Ms. Cook said Sodexho experienced problems with organic milk at a Florida school. Onion grass was in season and apparently was giving the product a greenish color and the flavor of onions.
Free-range meats present their own difficulties. Sodexho client Menlo College served heritage turkeys to its students. Heritage turkeys are so called because they belong to breeds older than the broad-breasted white, which usually graces the Thanksgiving table. Heritage turkeys take twice as long to grow, cost upward of $60 per bird, and have a gamier flavor and more sinewy texture.
"Students came back and said, 'There's something wrong with this meat; it tastes like it's spoiled,'" Ms. Cook said. Chefs explained that it was a different kind of turkey, but students asked why it couldn't be prepared in a manner more familiar to them.
The response from their chefs, she said, was "'Why would we do that? "We're offering premium product at a great opportunity to try something a lot of people want to learn about. We don't want to turn it into a butterball.'"