From burgers to brussels sprouts and many things between, you can find a variety of locally grown foods served through Gator Dining on the University of Florida campus.
Not only are they more tasty and fresh than older foods transported long distances, university officials and farmers say, they also help boost local economies and sustainability.
And UF is aiming to keep increasing their use.
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As of Thursday, 33% of Gator Dining products are purchased from local providers, said Tim Bucolo, resident district manager of Gator Dining Services. That includes over 40 farms and suppliers either from around the state, within 250 miles of the university campus or, at most, in the Southeastern U.S.
"Local sourcing is our top priority at Gator Dining," Bucolo said. "We want our dining halls to reflect UF’s roots as a land-grant agriculture university, and we do this by forming relationships directly with local vendors and growers. These relationships are the foundation of what we do at Gator Dining, and through them we can provide fresh and nutritious food for students while supporting a resilient local food economy."
Here are a few of the farms whose products you might find around campus.
Lake Meadow Naturals is an egg farm in Ocoee, near Orlando. It has been run by Dale Volkert for about 20 years and boasts around 13,000 organic, cage-free and heirloom eggs a day.
Some from his farm make their way to UF through The Villages Grown, a self-proclaimed community food system in Sumter County that partners with other local farms to grow and distribute fresh, nutrient-rich foods.
And even before they leave the farm, they're already supporting the local economy and sustainability. Lake Meadow Naturals uses recycled cartons made from newspapers nearby, and Volkert said he strives to employ Florida workers.
"We’re a small company ourselves, so we like to work with other small business where the products go right to the consumers, who appreciate the value," the farmer said. "It's a big, important thing to us."
Nearby, in Mount Dora, the family-owned Long & Scott Farms cultivates some of the Brussels sprouts, collard greens and cabbages that wind up in campus dining halls.
"The farmer and his children are huge Gators' fans, so they were super excited when they heard that UF was getting our produce," said Kirsten Rodriguez, food safety coordinator for the farms. "It’s really a great opportunity. We’re very blessed to be able to be a part ... It’s like they’re giving back to us. It’s a relationship. It really helps us.”
Serena Sakkal, sustainability manager for Gator Dining, agreed and said community partnerships are the backbone of UF's food system.
"Obviously, we have a higher purchasing power since we feed so many people everyday. I think, being able to share our resources with the smaller guy ... we are able to help them," she said. "It’s all in the name of being able to provide healthy, fresh, locally grown produce in the dining halls for our students.”
As a smaller operation with 900 acres, Long & Scott Farms' produce is routed to UF through Traders Hill Farm in Hilliard, Florida, which helps aggregate foods from many local farms for university purchase.
Manny Santana, produce buyer and forager for Traders Hill Farm, said the aggregation process helps bring in enough food to meet the supply demand for a large buyer like UF while still benefiting small farms and the Florida economy.
Right now, he said, UF accounts for about 2% of his work. He hopes to see that partnership grow as the university continues to expand its local farm sourcing.
In the upcoming fall semester, Bucolo said, salad bars in UF residential dining halls will feature produce entirely supplied by Traders Hill Farm and its partners.
The farm is an approved food vendor under Aramark, the giant corporation that currently holds UF's food service contract. To be approved, Santana said, there is a stringent application with many strict safety and insurance requirements.
Small, local farms often have different standards than Aramark, making approval on an individual level difficult. But through Traders Hill Farm, which already meets the requirements, he said, they can find help and still sell their produce.
"We're fighting for the little guys in a system that works," Santana said. "To be 100% transparent, UF, they buy local products, but it’s not an exorbitant amount. We’re not talking about thousands and thousands of pounds here, but it's a work in progress ... I mean this with hope.”
Pressure and goals
UF has received mounting pressure in the last year from students and food justice advocates as the current Armark contract comes to a close. A new food service contract is up for grabs June 30, 2022, according to university spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez.
One of the advocates' demands is an increase in purchases from local family- or cooperative-owned farms, ranches, fisheries, processors and other vendors.
While UF does want to increase this amount every year, said Matt Mueller, director of food and beverage services, the goal is not in response to growing demands. Instead, he said, it is part of the university's overall mission and has been for years.
“The goals of our program I think first and foremost are to align our program with the goals of the university and the campus community and the greater community," Mueller said. "Some of those things that the food advocate groups are asking are very aligned with where we want to go with the program as well.”