Editor’s note: The Southern Foodways Alliance has collaborated with the Montgomery Advertiser, the Clarion Ledger, AL.com and Mississippi Today to shine light on the economics and labor practices of campus dining at Auburn University, the University of Alabama, Mississippi State University, and the University of Mississippi.
AUBURN, Ala. — On an average day, the Nile tilapia travels less than five miles from its watery home to an Auburn University dining tray.
It’s the circle of life at Auburn’s E.W. Shell Fisheries Center, where researchers are pioneering modern aquaculture and agriculture: fertilizing vegetable crops with the specially harvested waste of commercial-grade fish, healthy and safe for everyday consumers.
“These are very healthy fish,” School of Fisheries manager Mollie Smith said inside an aquaponics greenhouse on a steaming September Wednesday, as she sprinkled feed along the water’s surface, attracting a thrashing, splashing hoard to its surface. “We know everything that has gone into their ecosystem.”
The Auburn fisheries ecosystem and the tilapia it raises are part of a wider ecosystem at the Alabama university.
As higher education funding plummeted and university finances ballooned in recent years, colleges have looked to contract services to help their bottom lines, consolidating and shifting management of departments such as grounds or custodial work, even classroom instructors, to contractors, often rendering workers ineligible for the university benefits of years’ past. Dining and food services at Alabama universities is one such department, with both schools in recent years signing contracts with Aramark, a massive food services corporation that handles everything from student workers to food purchasing for the public universities. The contracts are mirrored at comparable public universities in Mississippi, according to Southern Foodways Alliance reporting in the State of Campus Dining project.
A Montgomery Advertiser review of the dining contracts at the four major universities in Alabama and Mississippi found that Auburn alone required specific local purchasing standards in their Aramark contracts. While other universities have “local food” programs, highlighting the occasional local ingredient or using vague language to suggest dining contractors buy local “when possible,” Auburn requires dining to buy 20% of its annual products from Alabama businesses or business within an 200-mile radius, looping in nearby Georgia.
The contract language is a commitment, Auburn dining officials say, to not only the quality of food on a student’s plate but also to the local producers and agricultural labor in its community.
The commitment began to percolate nearly a decade ago, pushed forward by Auburn students interested in the local food movement and sustainability concerns. Glenn Loughridge, director of Dining Services, says one of the first meetings he took when he came to Auburn in 2012 was with the Auburn Real Food Challenge, a student group dedicated to getting 20% of “real” food (“local, fair, humane, and ecologically-sound”) to campus by 2020.
When Auburn transitioned its dining contract to Aramark in 2018, it set those benchmarks raised by the Real Food Challenge. Loughridge expects Auburn to meet them at the end of 2019.
Twenty percent local is also a commitment that makes sense for Auburn, a land-grant university with historical roots in the science, labor and economics of how we feed ourselves. Loughridge jokes that Auburn, his own alma mater, sometimes gets made fun of for its agricultural roots. But Auburn’s history can’t be overlooked when considering its relationship and understanding of Alabama farmers, the labor of food, and the pipeline from the vine and pasture to your plate.
“Being an ag school, we felt like this was a driver for us. I don’t want to simplify it, but every university has its economic drivers,” he said.
“It’s not a simple, ‘We want Farmer John who lives down the street to sell us his field full of collard greens,’” Loughridge said. “We need to be able to trace back sources, to make sure they’re certified, to make sure food is safe for our students to eat. It’s not always a simple process of going to buy local stuff. That’s another piece where Auburn can have an impact, and does, in terms of getting farmers certified so they’re able to sell into Sysco or other distribution models.”
Produce comes from Clanton, dairy from Thomasville, Georgia; Alabama-made products from Evergreen and Dadeville. Auburn also loops in its own meat services department. Tilapia from Smith’s flourishing hydroponics research appears as fish tacos in Auburn dining halls. Cucumbers from aquaponics greenhouses accent freshly picked lettuce salads.
Products like McEwen & Sons grits come from less than 100 miles north of Auburn. Frank McEwen, owner of the locally run grist mill and beef farm, believes in sustained commitment to local labor markets.
“Small businesses are the lifeblood of this country,” McEwen said. “It goes without saying how important I think it is for [communities] to invest in small businesses, and buying local. Know your farmers. Know who your purveyors are.”
The local food movement is nothing new: Farm-to-table restaurants and CSAs have been in vogue for more than a decade. But the follow-through from a “Buy Local” stamp on a menu to the actual ingredients in a dish can be difficult for consumers to discern.
At the University of Alabama, Bama Dining promotes its “Homegrown Alabama” initiative, which denotes any locally grown and produced products at campus dining halls. According to UA’s website, dining managers are “required to purchase” local products “whenever available.”
“The dining halls at UA are unlike local restaurants that can promote all local ingredients, in that a local restaurant may serve 400 guests in a typical day, and at UA we serve over 6,000 meals in an average day,” Kristina Partridge, director of UA’s Dining Services, said. “We purchase what we can, but if we can only get three cases of a certain item, we serve it until it is gone, and then may have to use products from another source.”
Partridge says UA currently has no internal benchmarks to meet in local purchasing and doesn’t track how often it meets Homegrown Alabama requirements.
For Auburn, working in requirements to its original contract was a priority, Loughridge said, so nobody was surprised down the road.
“There is a cost to it. No question. It’s something you have to be committed to. But if you work that in early, and make sure it’s part of your contract agreement, it can be simpler,” Loughridge said.
“You win the hearts and minds when somebody tastes something that is different,” Loughridge said. “When you have a tomato that’s been vine-ripened and brought to campus that day, it’s a different experience than that pulpy tomato from somewhere else. With campus food, students might have the feeling that they’re a captured market, so you don’t try as hard. We want to dispel that. We’re trying harder.”
About this story
For 2019, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, has explored the labor of food through symposia, films, podcasts, and other media. The SFA collaborated with AL.com, the Montgomery Advertiser, the Clarion-Ledger, and Mississippi Today to produce four interlocked stories, Food Is Work. Together, they shine light on the economics and labor practices of campus dining at Auburn University, the University of Alabama, Mississippi State University, and the University of Mississippi — the largest public universities in Alabama and Mississippi. These stories ask questions about worker compensation and benefits, university revenue models, and the relationship between universities and the corporate food service provider Aramark.
On October 25, during the Southern Foodways Symposium on the University of Mississippi campus, reporters from the project will discuss their findings.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Melissa Brown at 334-240-0132 or [email protected].