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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Think globally but eat locally: Submissions from Resource and Environmental Economics

To all appearances Grinnell College Dining Services is incorporating local foods into its offerings. In its mission statement, Dining Services claims it will “make reasonable efforts to identify and purchase affordably priced local food products that reflect the College’s commitment to environmental responsibility.” Last spring, after lobbying from students and faculty, Dining Services implemented a “Local Foods Intern” to identify and establish business relations with local producers. Furthermore, the Sustainable Endowments Institute gave Grinnell an “A” in the “Food and Recycling” category, and praised Grinnell as one of four schools “Leading by Example.” On its website, Dining Services proudly quotes reviewers: “[Grinnell] uses local, organic products for most of their staple ingredients.”

But does Dining Services’ behavior live up to its rhetoric? True, at one point they purchased organic flour, and once a semester they host an “All-Iowa” dinner, and they do regularly purchase a small number of locally produced items. But the reviewer’s statement stretches reality. Dining Services could do considerably more to stimulate the local economy, build connections with the surrounding community and supply students with delicious, fresh produce.

No one demands that Grinnell College supply all local food, all of the time. Local foods advocates, students and local producers want Grinnell to maximize reasonable purchasing of local food. Dining Services presents various reasons for not increasing local purchasing: inadequate facilities, insufficient local production to meet their demand, and unreliable local producers. While each of these arguments holds some merit, they could be overcome with a strong commitment from the College. Other schools, such as Iowa State University, have implemented innovative strategies to buy locally on a much larger scale than Grinnell College.
Dining Services’ directors cannot be individually blamed for their unwillingness to further develop local offerings. The underlying reason that Dining Services will not increase their local purchasing is economic: local food costs more, is inconvenient and requires more labor to prepare which further increases expenses. The benefits of and reasons to purchase locally are external to the economic interests of decision-makers. To expand local food purchasing, Dining Services needs to internalize the benefits through economic incentives that directly benefit their motive to supply quality food within a strict budget.

Who will pay for the higher cost of purchasing locally? Some students are willing to pay to support local foods in the dining hall, but to what extent? Would students choose to eat from a “locally produced” station (like the pasta bar or stir fry station) that cost an extra dollar from Pioneer Card campus cash? Would students be willing to add $50 to their board cost knowing it would go specifically into a “local foods fund?” Alternatively, the vision to include local foods is based on “the College’s commitment to environmental responsibility.” Would the College be willing to supply funding (separate from the budget that comes from student’s board) to increase local purchasing, reflecting their commitment to the environment and the Grinnell community? Would the College provide bonuses to Dining Services administrators based on the quantity of local foods purchases? Purchasing local foods costs more on an institutional scale. The question is: how much are students, Grinnell College and Dining Services willing to pay for it? There is widespread agreement that local foods taste better, enliven the local economy and strengthen community—however, the institutional food system does not recognize these benefits. Thus, to further develop Grinnell’s local offerings, it is necessary to explore alternatives to the current system.

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