Setting our eyes on the local food prize

February 2013

Our Jeff Metcalf intern, UChicago student Melissa Chanthalangsy, spearheaded a collaborative research project last summer with the Ivy Plus Sustainability Working Group to gain a greater understanding of how peer higher education institutions approach sustainable dining and local food. Her research revealed that there is significant enthusiasm for local food. However, Melissa also discovered that there often are not concrete guidelines on what local really means in terms of food production, processing, and purchasing.

In collaboration with two interns at Dartmouth College, Melissa interviewed dining administrators from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Brown, Penn, Cornell, Duke, and Johns Hopkins. To gain other perspectives on the commitment toward local food acquisition from both consumers and suppliers, Melissa also interviewed the Vice President of Red Jacket Orchards, a large family-owned apple farm in New York State, which provides apples to institutions such as Cornell and Columbia. As a result of this interview, she was invited to attend the annual 2012 Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference in downtown Chicago where apple farm business executives across the US gathered to network and exchange business ideas. One of the panels addressed the importance of the role of farms in local and sustainable food production and the need to commit to these initiatives once better defined and understood.

Local food acquisition has different impacts, both on the environment and on the local economy. While purchasing food that is grown and raised locally can reduce miles traveled and therefore greenhouse gas emissions, purchasing from a locally headquartered company can also impact the local economy. After analyzing the provided data from UChicago's vendors, Melissa's team determined that purchases identified as locally grown and raised versus processed from a local company need to be evaluated separately to understand the different impacts they might have. Only then could the University fully understand the benefits to local food purchasing.

Regarding her decision to build on her summer project, Melissa says she, "wanted to commit to continue this research by taking it to the next level while narrowing the scope of my project to focus on the University of Chicago." This academic year, she is applying this research in an academic setting and is coordinating efforts between the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, Agriculture, and Food (EAF) academic research group led by Professor Sabina Shaikh. In collaboration with fellow UChicago students in EAF, she is helping to create guidelines to put clear parameters around what it means to produce food locally.