Local sourcing means more than just ticking an ethical box and TUCO members are showing how buying local can be done, writes Tom Tanner from the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
Universities and colleges sit right at the heart of UK towns and cities.
They form part of the core fabric of the community. With thousands of hungry student mouths to feed, they also have a huge amount of power to influence the food landscape that surrounds them with their procurement decisions. With buying budgets running into the millions they can transform an artisan business overnight, as well as feed their customers’ growing appetite for provenance.
Millennial mouths are discerning and generally come closely attached to a brain inspired by the stories inextricably linked to the food they consume. With producers popping up all over the country and a food revolution in full swing, there has never been a better time for university caterers to think local. The benefits of closer working
relationships, a thriving network of local businesses all pulling in the same direction and access to quality fresh seasonal food on your doorstep await.
Darren Procter, who took over as executive head chef at Sheffield Hallam University two years ago, after a number of years in the West Country running his own restaurant and working at Plymouth University, needs no second invitation to root out producers on his doorstep. “For me this is something of a personal thing,” he says. “I mean I’m not judged on how sustainable we are but I take it upon myself to operate as sustainably as we can.
When you think that the restaurant and hospitality industry accounts for half of the country’s spending on food then we have a huge responsibility.
“It also means we can make a massive impact by shaping food culture with the thousands of students we are feeding on a daily basis. By working closely with local suppliers and communicating that to our customers we are using fresh local ingredients as a means of educating our students.”
Head north of the border and there’s an added incentive to look to the local larder for inspiration.
The Scottish government actively encourages businesses to look at what’s on their doorstep. Ian Macaulay, assistant director (catering) at the University of Edinburgh, explains: “Local food is massive for us and I can use the Procurement Reform Act to discriminate in favour of small Scottish producers, which means we’re investing in the local economy and supporting small producers to grow.”
Ian is adamant that sourcing locally doesn’t need to be more expensive either. In fact he argues the contrary. “It’s often the bigger guys who pull the wool over your eyes when it comes to price.”
Finding suppliers that are reliable, affordable and consistentand who can also provide the volumes university caterers require, are among the top barriers cited for sticking with the safe option of a major wholesaler. But both Ian and Nick Leach, head of catering services at Portsmouth University, would advise any of their counterparts to engage with their wholesalers and challenge them to up the proportion of local produce, they supply.
Nick says: “Call them in, and say to them, tell me where you are sourcing your stuff from – and that you’d like at least 25% to come from local producers. Then you’ll start getting somewhere.”
Ian is even more strident in his view about where the blame lies for there being insufficient local food on campus menus across the country.
“In foodservice our biggest dilemma is getting wholesalers to embrace SMEs more. They are unwilling to take the risk and they overload small producers with bureaucracy. That’s why I am delighted to have the freedom to go directly to them.” And that is exactly what he has done, sourcing an increasing amount from small local producers and suppliers – including all of his milk and coffee and growing quantities of vegetables and meat. Back in Sheffield, Darren now benefits from dairy deliveries from a farm a stone’s throw from the university. Our Cow Molly, on the outskirts of Sheffield, provides all of his milk, as well as ticking sustainability boxes as it is certified as free range.