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$485K to UMass for campus’ sustainable food system

AMHERST — Seeking to transform the sustainable food landscape in New England, the Henry P. Kendall Foundation of Boston has granted $485,000 over the next two years to the University of Massachusetts to support and extend the campus’s award-winning leadership in food sustainability.

The foundation’s long-term goal is “to create a resilient and healthy food system in New England that increases the production and consumption of local, sustainably-produced food,” according to the university.

The goal is for a majority of food eaten in New England to be produced here by 2060. It identifies the I-91 corridor from Greenfield to New Haven, Conn., as one of its target areas and recognizes UMass as already a pioneering leader in using whole, local foods.

Andrew Kendall, executive director of the Kendall Foundation, said, “We chose to support this program at UMass Amherst because universities are important levers for change in the food system. They have economic clout that impacts the supply chain and they engage students who are future consumers.”

When he learned of the grant, Congressman James McGovern, long interested in promoting local and environmentally sustainable food, said, “This major grant will go a long way in allowing UMass Amherst to continue their innovative work in creating a sustainable, resilient, locally based food system. It is unbelievable to me that in 2014, it is difficult for most people to access local, healthy food. But changing that reality requires institutions like UMass to be out front on shifting the paradigm.”

The grant will help planners for the campus’ dining services to find and cultivate new suppliers of whole, local and more environmentally sustainable food on an unprecedented scale, said Executive Director Ken Toong of auxiliary services.

The transition will focus at first on the campus’s newly remodeled Hampshire Dining Commons, which serves about 1.3 million meals per year. UMass dining services now uses about 32 percent local produce and is seeking to increase that amount, plus adding more free-range poultry and eggs and other local and regional meats, dairy and fish.

“For example, we are very interested in finding a source of cage-free chicken for our dining services from Massachusetts,” says Toong. “However, in Hampshire Dining Commons, we require on average 50 chickens per day for one menu item and finding a vendor that could supply that volume has been very difficult. This grant from the Kendall Foundation will allow us to develop relationships with new, non-industrial poultry vendors in the region who can ramp up to match our demand. In the meantime, the money will help us buy the free-range chicken we’re seeking.”

Redesigned meals will use more sustainable seafood based on underused species such as hake, Acadian redfish and pollock, plus local, free-range and humanely raised meats, plant-based proteins, fruits, vegetables and healthy beverages. The campus will also try varied strategies to eliminate waste and find cost efficiencies to offset the higher cost of protein.

UMass recently was the largest food service provider in the nation in higher education to sign on to the Boston-based Real Food Challenge, an organization whose goal is to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrially farmed and junk food and toward local and community-based, fair and ecologically sound food by 2020.

In addition to funding two new sustainable food system coordinators who will explore such strategies as collective buying power with nearby educational institutions, the grant will support the expansion of two annual workshops already offered by UMass Amherst. One is an annual permaculture event to be known now as “Revisioning Sustainability.” In 2013, more than 100 faculty, staff and students from 34 campuses, 14 states and three countries attended.

The other annual event is the “Chef’s Culinary Conference,” organized by Toong. At this hands-on event, the largest in the nation for college chefs, participants hear lectures in the morning and spend the afternoons in groups of 20, testing 200 recipes in five days. In the next two years, there will be increased emphasis on how to use local, whole and environmentally sustainable foods in campus meal planning.

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