Report by Darden, Architecture School Team Aims to Ease the Flow of Local Foods

April 9, 2009 — With a little bit of business know-how, more local food can make its way into Charlottesville's food-service operations.

That was the conclusion of a team drawn from students and faculty at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and its School of Architecture. The group presented the findings of their research project, "Jefferson Area Board for Aging Community Food System Project," April 6 at the U.Va. Institute on Aging's Forum on aging research.

The research was funded by the U.Va. Institute on Aging and JABA.

The Darden contingent included second-year student Hope Temple, professor Andrea Larson and Erika Herz, manager of sustainability programs. Researchers from the Architecture School's Department of Urban and Environmental Planning were graduate student Regine Kennedy and Timothy Beatley, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities.

JABA operates residential facilities and provides 3,500 meals a week for senior members of the Charlottesville community; due to the aging of the U.S. population, it may see that number triple by 2010.

JABA sought information and innovative ideas that it could use to meet its goal to provide fresh, nutritious meals that improve the health and quality of life not only for its clients but also for the larger community. The student researchers analyzed JABA's local food procurement patterns and processes, providing recommendations on how it could expand local food purchasing by targeting specific strategies in purchasing and working more closely with local farmers.

The students examined local supply and demand dynamics for vegetables and fruit and studied best practices from other U.S. communities active in local food access for seniors. The researchers also mapped the existing local "foodshed" in the Charlottesville area, including retailers, farmers' markets and restaurants. They interviewed farmers to determine what pricing, scheduling and resources are necessary for them to increase supply to local institutions such as hospitals, senior care centers, schools and restaurants.

The research has contributed to JABA's efforts on behalf of its clientele. It also has stimulated greater attention to local food benefits for community members of all ages, and has encouraged activity locally that is designed to build a strong local food production and distribution network for the Charlottesville area.

The research team found that reducing price variability through better management of demand, creating additional distribution infrastructure to get foods from the farm to the table and contracting in advance with farmers are all necessary to build a more robust local food system for JABA and other area institutions.

Finally, payment structures must be addressed as most institutions pay in 30 days, whereas farmers need to be paid within approximately two weeks.

Darden's Larson stressed the importance of applying business know-how to designing innovative, viable local food systems that can provide healthy, nutritious and better-tasting alternatives to conventional processed foods that are often shipped from thousands of miles away.

"Supply interruptions, fuel price volatility, energy security, food quality worries and greater attention being paid to health improvement through improving the food we consume, all point to benefits that can be realized by local food sourcing," she said. "It maintains farms, creates local jobs and offers a degree of food safety and security while giving us better-tasting, more nutritious food," she said. "In the face of industrial agriculture's dominance of our food supplies, everyone benefits."

Since completion of the research study, two local entrepreneurs have founded the Local Food Hub, a non-profit designed to support local and independent food producers. They will offer large-volume wholesale purchasing, delivery and consolidation of product and liability insurance. This will simplify the purchasing process for buyers and sellers, and address some of the issues identified in the study.

Darden itself is increasing the amount of local food it purchases, thanks to the efforts of Tom Cervelloni, the school's director of food and beverage. He was instrumental in bringing local producers to Darden for last October's Darden Market, where fresh, local food was served to faculty, staff, MBA students and executive education guests.

"We are pleased to support local farmers," Cervelloni said. "The product is fresh and delicious because it only travels a short distance, and we enjoy developing relationships in the community and knowing the source of our food."

Darden has set the goal to be a zero-waste, carbon-neutral enterprise by 2020, and a top-10 school for teaching and research by 2013.

The school is planning a second Darden Market this year, and will make available additional research opportunities for students interested in food entrepreneurship and local food systems.

"The topic of local food sourcing is a terrific example of how Darden considers its sustainability actions in terms of how we live and how we learn," Herz said. "It's a great benefit to us when we can undertake academic research while also effecting change within our operations."

Founded in 1955, the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business improves society by developing leaders in the world of practical affairs.

For information, contact communication@darden.virginia.edu.