The University of Montana has been plagued by bad publicity in recent years. As a UM alumnus who didn't give a rip when the Griz beat North Dakota State last fall, the onslaught of negative news has read like a nightmare for a school I knew and continue to care about. But after a recent conversation with UM Dining Director Mark LoParco, I'm relieved to offer a headline with a different tone: the University of Montana is saving America one meal at a time.
That idea might ring dramatic and surely LoParco, who's been in charge of dining services for 24 years and is as pragmatic as he is gregarious, would balk at the lofty sentiment. But when you consider the number of critical issues facing the U.S. that are linked to the way we produce and distribute what we eat—i.e. an obesity epidemic, greenhouse gas emissions and inequality in all its forms—it's not so outlandish. For more than a decade, LoParco and his staff have been working to feed the UM community in a more sustainable way. The impacts are profound and far-reaching.
It began in 2003, when UM Dining, in partnership with the environmental studies program, hosted its first "Farm to College" event, a breakfast prepared with all locally sourced ingredients. It was an experiment of sorts, and the results were clear.
"So many guests showed up we had to send people to buy more food because we were running out," remembers LoParco. "The response was incredibly positive."
In the years following, UM Dining hosted more Farm to College events and in time began integrating sustainability into the department's daily operations by buying energy-efficient appliances and nontoxic cleaning solutions. Graduate students were given stipends to analyze the cost benefits of buying products locally and a plot of land next to the university's Lommasson Center was dedicated to growing food. In 2009, LoParco hired a sustainability director who, among other duties, works to source local and sustainable foods for all of UM's menus, including event concessions, catering and the campus cafeteria, known as the Food Zoo. What started as an experiment has turned into a no-nonsense business model.
During the 2014-15 fiscal year, UM Dining spent about one-third ($1.2 million) of its total budget on food grown either in Montana or in a neighboring state. This statistic is staggering for a state university, and it doesn't include the 2,400 pounds of produce the university grew on campus. Nor does it reflect UM's reduction in waste spurred by buying Montana-grown beans and lentils that didn't arrive on campus in cans, or the impact it's had on the individual farmers and ranchers who've come to rely on UM's business.
Director of Sustainability Trevor Lowell says that while offering food prepared with more nutritious and better tasting ingredients to the UM community is central to his work, proving the economic benefits of sustainability are what really matters. The university buys food from more than 130 regional farmers, ranchers and businesses and, according to Lowell, those relationships are evidence of the systemic benefits of sustainability.
"We invest in local producers. It makes their lives easier and their business more viable when they can depend on our business. They can grow their business around that and, in time, offer cheaper prices," he says. "Then it becomes more viable for other people to buy local food."
"Local" and "sustainable" have long been buzzwords in the food world. Chefs, specialty grocers and market organizers have been promoting an alternative to the world's industrialized food system for decades, and for good reason. But while buying local, sustainably produced food is a leap in the right direction, the movement will do little to change the status quo if its champions are only progressively minded chefs and people who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. Real change needs to be cost-effective and it needs to work on an institutional level. LoParco and his team are proving it's possible. Since 2007, he says, as UM has bought more food annually from regional growers, the university's overall food costs have dropped.
"One of the best business decisions we've made since I've been here is buying local food," he says. "From a budgetary perspective, it makes sense." There's more to it, of course.
"This is an institution of higher learning, and this is a part of that learning," he adds. "It's the right thing to do."