Grow, Distribute, Eat

Amy Countryman
Indiana University Office of Sustainability
Bloomington, IN

Adapted by Lea Woodard, Indiana University


Though the benefits of creating a sustainable food system are generally well understood, there are many challenges which pertain to Indiana University (IU) feeding its 40,000 students, faculty, and staff.  In particular, the IU Residential Programs and Services office (RPS) feeds close to 10,000 people every day during the school semester.  The current food supply system is well-established, and relies mainly on food grown and shipped from many miles away. This paper researches the availability of adequate amounts of local produce for IU’s food system and the possible solutions to overcoming the associated barriers of infrastructure and reliability. A “Local Food Availability” survey of local growers was developed and administered to approximately 130 farmers who sell at the Bloomington Community Farmers Market (BCFM).

Based on personal communication and the results of the survey, several local farmers were identified as interested in selling their food on a large enough scale to influence the composition of RPS’ offerings.  Creating a local food distribution center was identified as a solution to meet the local food purchasing challenges faced by local growers and IU food services. Beyond the obvious environmental, local economic and social reasons for prioritizing the creation of a sustainable food model for IU, understanding the implications of one’s food choices is a foundation of a solid education.  As farmer Lee Stadnyk put it so well, “What humans put in their bodies to sustain themselves is one of the most important actions they take…..for personal health as well as for interactions with ecosystems. It should be part of any well-rounded education” (Markley).


One of the challenges to getting local food into the Indiana University (IU) food supply system is the presence of multiple complex systems for feeding 40,000 students, faculty, and staff. The Indiana Memorial Union (IMU) and Herman B. Wells Library are both supplied by Sodexo, the “leading provider of…food and facilities management services in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, serving 10 million customers in 6,000 locations every day” (Sodexo). Food in residence halls is supplied by RPS, which has 28 on-campus locations (Residential Programs and Services).  RPS obtains its food primarily from two distributors, Piazza Produce and Troyer Foods, and feeds approximately 10,000 people every day during the school semester (Drake).

The market advantages of purchasing local food are well-known to Sodexo, RPS, Piazza, and Troyer.  Sodexo pledged to “source local, seasonal or sustainably grown or raised products in all [80] countries where [they] operate by 2015” (Sodexo).  In the RPS Strategic Plan for 2007-2010, the goal for September 2007 was to “[e]stablish [a] pilot program with the interested university partners, Local Grower’s Guild (LGG), and Students Producing Organics Under the Sun (SPROUTS) to purchase more sustainable and local products for use in our dining halls” (Residential Programs and Services).The LGG is a cooperative of farmers, community members, and businesses that strengthen the local food economy through education, direct support and market connections.  Piazza Produce has a program based on offering relatively local foods, called “Buy Fresher” (Piazza Produce).  The other main food supplier for RPS, Troyer Foods, has existing relationships with some local growers and would like to establish more.

Eating locally-grown food is mounting in importance as individuals and institutions grapple with the environmental, social, and, increasingly economic realities posed by an average meal that travels more than 1,300 miles from farm to fork (Hill). In response, universities such as Brown, Yale and Princeton are creating sustainable food models. Over 340 universities across the United States, including Northwestern and Michigan State, are officially participating in the “Real Food Challenge,” which is a nationwide attempt to redirect 20% of college food expenditures toward local, organic, or fair-trade products by the year 2020 (Real Food Challenge). Surrounded by a community of active farmers and a long growing season, IU is well positioned to take a leading role in creating a sustainable food system and making eating local a reality. Bloomington is well-known in local food circles for its phenomenal Farmers’ Market and thriving “locavore” scene; these attributes are not reflected in the food procurement practices of its largest local institution.  It is unknown what portion of the IU population already cares about the origins of their food, but one of the intentions of the following study and ensuing recommendations is to raise the level of student engagement on this topic.

Scope of the Project

Figure 1.  A 400 mile radius around Indianapolis includes parts of Alabama and Georgia.

In order to increase the amount of locally-grown food in the IU residence halls, the word “local” must first be defined.  As defined by the U.S. Congress in the 2008 “Food, Conservation, and Energy Act,” the total distance that a product can be transported and still be considered a “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the state in which it is produced (United States Department of Agriculture).  Figure 1 shows a 400 mile radius around Indianapolis.

Since it is much more ecologically and economically sustainable to source one’s food as close to the plate as possible, special attention was given to growers in closer proximity to Bloomington than is represented by Figure 1. It is not reasonable for Bloomington residents to consider consuming peaches from Georgia as sustainable as eating those grown in Daviess County, IN given the relative amount of resources required for the transportation of each fruit.

A recent study of local food distribution in South Central Indiana by the LGG characterizes “local” as within a 100 mile radius around Bloomington; additionally, the farmers who sell their wares at the BCFM come from up to 100 miles away (Local Growers Guild).  Thus, it is appropriate, logical, and preferred to use the 100 mile definition rather than the 400 mile characterization for the purposes of this investigation. To simplify matters, this paper will focus on food procurement of IU residence halls in hope that once a system is in place, the program will spread to other parts of the University.

Local Food Availability Survey

In order to answer the questions of whether adequate local supply exists, a survey of “Local Food Availability” (survey) was developed and administered to farmers who sell at the BCFM.  The survey was offered online to the majority of growers (approximately 100) who had e-mail addresses available; in addition, approximately 30 surveys were hand-delivered to growers at the Saturday BCFM.

In the survey (Colaluca), a list of produce items commonly used by RPS in a given week was provided.  The grower was asked for his or her contact information, what items he or she could grow given adequate time to plan, what time of the season those items would be available, and how much of the item that the grower thought he or she could provide.

Survey Results

In total, 16 local farmers completed the survey; 12 growers filled it out online, 3 farmers filled out hard copies of the survey, and 1 filled it out over the telephone.  In total, 10 produce growers, 3 meat producers, 1 honey (and honey products) producer, 1 grain grower, and 1 cheese maker answered the survey. The low-response rate is likely due to survey distribution occurring in July, one of the busiest times for farmers.  Future information-gathering efforts should happen in winter months in order to capture the most data possible.

Figure 2. Number of local large scale farmers interested in supplying IU by type of products.

Based on personal communication and the results of the survey, several local farmers are interested in selling their food on a large enough scale to influence the composition of the RPS offerings.  Of these 16 growers who responded to the survey, 9 produce food in a large enough quantity to supply IU with food (see Figure 2).


There are several challenges for local growers who wish to sell their products to IU and by those at IU who wish to utilize local products.  Local farmers frequently mentioned a perception that IU is not interested in purchasing their food or that IU would not be able to support the price needed by these farmers to make a living.  On the other hand, the people responsible for feeding the IU population face the daunting challenge of altering a complex supply system.

The first barrier to overcome is integrating farmers into the IU system. Currently, one way to sell produce to IU is direct sale by contracting as an official vendor through the IU Purchasing Department. The farmer must fill out a Vendor Information Packet (VIP) including a W-9 tax form, a general vendor information form and an optional direct deposit form. The farmer must also provide proof of insurance: $1,000,000 worker’s compensation, $1,000,000 general liability, and $1,000,000 automobile insurance. After approval from the IU Office of Risk Management, the farmer will be added to the food bid list upon which RPS bids once a week. According to the LGG Local Food Distribution report, “IU operates on a low bid system but they do have the ability to list a local product as a specific line item, for example, ‘Indiana tomatoes’ rather than ‘tomatoes’ in order to give preference to a local producer.  They could potentially pay slightly higher prices for local products but would have to be able to justify the cost difference to an auditor” (Local Growers Guild). The winning vendor delivers their produce three times a week.

The second option, which RPS prefers, is for farmers to sell their products through a current IU distributor such as Troyer Foods or Piazza Produce. In order for a farmer to sell his or her goods to one of RPS’ current food suppliers, farmers must meet all the insurance, food safety, packing, and cooling conditions set forth by the suppliers.  Major food wholesalers tend to work with large-scale farms, but the rising interest in locally-grown foods may mean an increased willingness to work with smaller farms (Local Growers Guild).  While both Piazza and Troyer indicate interest in purchasing locally-grown foods, (Bernath; Irwin) IU’s support of those offerings would strengthen the demand for local producers’ products, and potentially provide an incentive for local farmers to expand their operations.

The second barrier is for farmers to meet the liability insurance requirement. Farmers must acquire $1 million in liability insurance to sell their food to a local distributor or IU. Several insurance agents indicated that local farmers may unknowingly have this insurance in their farm policy already, or that it may not be cost-prohibitive for them to upgrade their current policies to this level.  Insurance estimates vary widely, and are based on the size and activities of the farm operation.  Thus, it is very difficult to come up with a general ball-park figure for the cost of a $1 million liability policy, and the following numbers should be viewed as very rough estimates.
According to Farm Bureau Insurance, a liability policy added to a current farm policy should not cost more than an additional $500 per year.

Many of the local small- to medium-sized farms that supply local farmers markets, restaurants, and multiple Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) services do not have large enough operations to be able to justify the increase in cost or labor needed to work with the IU system or the food distributors on an individual basis.  A cooperative action or collaboration between multiple parties would smoothly integrate local food into the larger system.

Possible Solutions and Actions: Long and Short Term

Currently, it appears that local farmers are interested in supplying at least some of the needs of IU, and RPS is interested in using local food if conditions are right.  Some of the questions that need to be answered to further the local food process at IU are:

    • How do we connect the people who grow the food with the people who need it?
    • How do we make certain that the people who grow the food are paid a fair price for it?
    • How do we ensure that the people who buy the food can do so whilst still meeting their budget?
    • How do we physically get the food from the farmer to the kitchen while it is still in safe, edible condition?

A long-term approach for creating a local food supply system should include the creation of a large-scale distribution facility so that locally grown food is available to local Bloomington institutions including IU, the Monroe County Community School Corporation (MCCSC), Bloomington Hospital, etc.  No single farm could supply the quantity of food needed by these large institutions; a local wholesale distribution center would permit cooperative supply from multiple farmers through a single point (Local Growers Guild).

A collective distribution facility could be loosely based on a model of small-scale food distribution practiced by Grasshoppers Distribution in Louisville, KY.  Grasshoppers is a cooperative of farms, supported by federal, state, and private money, that supplies wholesale markets and a CSA program with only local food.  This farmer-driven and –run effort appears successful in a setting fairly analogous to Bloomington.  Funding a local project would likely require government support; currently, grants and loans from the USDA are available to “reinvigorate” our local food system (United States Department of Agriculture).

At IU, the Executive Chef and Assistant Director of RPS is receptive to using local food, but is not in a position to deal with farmers on an individual basis. The Executive Chef at the IMU has been working with Bloomingfoods, a local cooperative grocery store that focuses on supplying locally-grown and organic foods, for the past few years to acquire local food for use in a lunch buffet once a week.  This effort speaks to the demand for locally-grown food on campus, and is indicative of the kind of creative partnerships being made to meet the need. Other interested parties at IU include the IUOS and the Campus Sustainability Advisory Board whose Food Working Group has been active since 2007.  People in various departments share a passion for local food; for example, Susan Coleman Morse, a Master’s student in the IU School of Informatics, has conceptualized a methodology for tracking the inputs and outputs of a local food distribution system.

The LGG identified approximately 15 local farmers who indicated interest in expanding their wholesale markets in a 2009 survey.  Another possible supply source is the Daviess County Produce Auction, a wholesale outlet for local produce supplied by 175 to 200 predominantly Amish farmers who raise “just about every type of produce imaginable” (McCann).  The auction is popular with wholesale buyers from as far away as Chicago, and supplies supermarkets, garden centers, and produce stands with high quality, seasonal produce.

Local Distributors

Bloomingfoods offers the IMU easy ordering of local food, storage space in its cooler, and protection under its insurance policy (Gust).  It is also beneficial for the local grower to participate in the system since there is the opportunity to sell more products without the need to deliver to additional locations. Another small scale distributor, Tim Grissom of Grissom’s Greens works with Amish farmers in Daviess County, IN to facilitate more outlets for their food, including IU.

Piazza Produce operates on the northwest side of Indianapolis, and includes Indianapolis Fruit in its family of companies.  It defines local food as that which it can “backhaul” from one of its delivery sites back to its warehouse.  Since Piazza distributes food throughout the Midwest including Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky, its “locally-grown” offerings may come from any of these states.  Piazza is “always looking for more farms” to supply its distribution chain (Irwin).  The company buys directly from farms, and can also provide the service of picking up the product from farms.

Figure 3.  Map of the Troyer Foods distribution area

Troyer Foods, in Goshen, IN, has four facilities throughout Indiana and is interested in building relationships with local growers.  Troyer offers a wide-range of products, including meat, dairy, and produce, which they purchase from over 200 distributors and growers worldwide (Troyer Foods). Troyer has a distribution facility in Bloomington, and distributes food in a three-hundred mile area throughout the Midwest, as shown in Figure 3.


In order to capitalize on the already-strong interest in eating locally, student and administrative support and requests for local, sustainable food are key components to a successful sustainable food model.  One idea proposed by a former IUOS intern, Jessica Colaluca, is to establish a price incentive for the purchase of locally grown goods.  For example, a 5% price incentive would mean that a locally grown case of apples priced at $33.60 would be competitive with a California-grown case priced at $32.00.

To further engage the University community, the IUOS & Food Working Group could create a Sustainable Food Coordinator position on campus to work with SPROUTS, the Food Working Group at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Students for Sustainable Food, Slow Food IU, administration, farmers, and the Bloomington community to develop and implement a sustainable food model for IU.  The model could include student trips to local farms, establishing local food contracts, organizing a student-run farm, developing a student farmers market, connecting students with their food and assisting Bloomington community members with developing a strategic plan for a local food distribution facility.

The Sustainable Food Coordinator should prioritize inspiring student-led, food-related action and highlighting locally produced offerings.  On the eaters’ side of things, a formal “Farm-to-College” initiative should be collaboratively undertaken by students and the Campus Sustainability Advisory Board Food Working Group.


Although many challenges exist to sustainably feeding 40,000 people over nine months of the year, IU has an excellent opportunity to be a nationwide leader in sustainability. While creating a sustainable model, IU will be contributing to the local economy, protecting the environment, and supporting local growers.  IU is well positioned to create a sustainable food model by accessing the plentiful locally grown food. There is no doubt that doing such work will be challenging and full of surprises but that, after all, is learning.  As noted agriculturalist and author Wendell Berry said, “How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”  Let’s use it wisely.

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