West is a part of the ongoing movement toward more local, sustainable food, which is a recent priority for CDS as it tries to meet the standards of the Real Food Challenge.
The challenge aims to get universities to serve less food from industrial farms. It was brought to UNC by Fair, Local, Organic Food, a UNC student organization asking that CDS be more sustainable in its food purchases.
But for CDS, more sustainable also means more expensive.
Mike Freeman, director of auxiliary services at CDS, said despite FLO’s campaigns, most students do not want to pay more for their meals.
“We ask students, ‘Do you want local-sustainable,’ and they say, ‘Yes,’ and then we say, ‘Do you want to pay more,’ and they go, ‘No,’” he said.
Freeman said the challenge is FLO’s consistently changing standards of what does and does not count as local, sustainable sources.
“(FLO) gave us this (report), and we did it and we noticed some things, and things counted, but all of a sudden, it flipped and next year it didn’t count,” he said.
But FLO representatives say that kind of mentality is necessary.
“Any kind of third-party system that is going to check what is right or wrong or what is ethical needs to be dynamic,” said Claire Hannapel, director of communications for FLO.
Freeman said he did not want to commit to something that is constantly changing.
Cindy Shea, director of UNC’s Sustainability Office, said because students are not required to purchase a meal plan, prices must be competitive.
“Students here are not compelled to purchase meal plans, so there is always the opportunity for students to buy elsewhere, and the risk that if costs go up too much that students may choose not to participate,” she said.
Aramark now handles most of UNC’s dining operations.
“That is actually what has been a part of the success story of recent years is working with students and Aramark and Carolina Dining Services,” Shea said.
One local provider is Firsthand Foods, which supplies pork to UNC.
“The executive chefs three years ago contacted us directly saying they were interested in sourcing local, sustainable meat products, and the conversation went from there,” said Jennifer Curtis, co-CEO of Firsthand Foods.
In order to provide pork for the dining halls, many farmers work in cooperation with Firsthand to fulfill the order.
Curtis said Firsthand has about 60 farmers who supply either pork or beef.
West, who provides pork to Firsthand, said his relationship with the company has been very useful in keeping his farm profitable.
“Firsthand is a reliable, dependable buyer of premium products and quite honestly, the only way I could afford to raise hogs like this is if I get a premium price,” he said.
The pork that is sent to campus dining halls is animal-welfare approved.
“That’s the gold standard for humane production in the country,” Curtis said.
Some meats served in the dining hall, however, are not treated as ethically as others.
The University has moved away from using caged chickens, but Freeman wonders if cage-free is really better.
“Caged is kind of tough because they clip the wings and they put maybe two hens to a cage, but if you go to a farm that is cage-free, the hens are all in (a) pen,” he said.
Despite efforts to improve, a 2014 Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System report gave UNC a .56 out of 4.00 in food and beverage purchasing.
“You need to take it in context. While we did not achieve the full points available in the credits, it is also the goals within the STARS criteria are also really emphasized on aspirational things like zero waste and climate,” Shea said. “While those are great things to shoot for, we are not going to get to those levels overnight.”
According to a report by FLO, UNC’s local and sustainable food purchases have increased to more than 21 percent, Freeman said.
“I think CDS continues to show their interest in expanding the amount of real food served,” said FLO member Alexandria Huber.
Curtis believes the University is making great strides to use its unique position to promote locally sourced food both in Chapel Hill and at other universities.
“I think universities have tremendous purchasing power, and I think UNC is a model for how it can be done well,” she said.