Bowdoin Dining Services purchases and receives a startling amount of food every week. According to Associate Director of Dining Kenneth Cardone, Bowdoin serves 23-24 thousand meals per week, consuming a quantity of meat, fish, produce, fruit and dry goods that weighs thousands of pounds.
To provide such a huge quantity of food, Bowdoin relies on a range of suppliers. Sourcing and Menu Manager Matt Caiazzo said that approximately 80 percent of the total food purchases are from the Performance Food Group (PFG) NorthCenter distribution facility in Augusta, Maine.
PFG supplies Bowdoin with an enormous range of products. Almost all meat that is not ground beef comes from PFG, as do eggs, non-milk dairy products, dry pantry goods, fruit besides apples and many paper products and supplies. PFG is a satellite location of a national distribution company that contracts with some of the biggest players in the food industry including Tyson, Kraft and ConAgra among others.
The other 20 percent of the food budget is spent at a variety of mid-sized sources. Bubier Meats, in Greene, Maine supplies primal cuts of locally raised beef that Bowdoin grinds in a meat cutting room in Thorne Dining Hall. All of Bowdoin’s ground beef is local and ground in-house. Bowdoin sometimes buys processed meat from GoodSource Solutions, a California based company that purchases discounted surplus product from industrial processers immediately after a client discontinues an item or changes its production specifications.
PJ Merril Seafood and Harbor Fish, both based in Portland, Maine, as well as Maine Shellfish Company from Kennebunk, Maine provide Bowdoin with seafood, much of which is caught off the Maine coast. Each company is a small distributor with national connections.
Similarly, Bowdoin’s farm produce comes from multiple sources. In addition to a small amount of produce from the Bowdoin Organic Garden, Dining also purchases from the Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative and Farm Fresh Connection, both aggregators and distributors of produce from small to midsize producers in Maine.
While Cardone and Caiazzo identified these businesses as suppliers to Bowdoin, they were unable to provide any information about the respective quantity of food purchased from each. Bowdoin’s Controller’s Office was also unable to provide any information about payments to each vendor.
In recent years, awareness about the provenance of food has increased significantly, as has awareness of the steep external cost that many methods of food production carry. The cost is manifested in harsh conditions for migrant farm workers, as well as in the outsized environmental impact of the industrial livestock industry, which accounts for 15 percent of global carbon emissions.
This cost also appears in the ecosystem-damaging runoff of chemical fertilizer and pesticides from croplands not to mention the public heath threat posed by widespread antibiotic and hormone use in animal feed.
Others have taken issue with cruel and inhumane treatment of animals, including confining pregnant and nursing sows in gestation crates and confining laying hens in battery cages. The widespread use of genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s) in the food system has also become a target for activist consumers, though there is not yet a definitive consensus that they pose any risk to consumers.
The food system is so complex and opaque that it is nearly impossible to understand and account for all of its externalities. For instance, an Associated Press investigation recently found that slavery is widespread the Thai fishing industry, which supplies fish to many large retailers and distributors in the U.S. and Europe.
Some of the food Bowdoin serves avoids the external costs of the industrial food system but Bowdoin may be guilty of complicity with many of these practices. PFG supplies antibiotic and hormone free meat but it is unclear how much of it Bowdoin buys.
“I think a lot of the products we purchase are antibiotic free,” said Caiazzo.
Caiazzo was unable to provide the Orient with any data about which and how many products are free of the drugs.
With respect to chicken, Bowdoin may soon benefit from shifts by some of the market’s biggest players. McDonalds recently announced that it will begin to limit antibiotics in its chicken over the next two years.
“[McDonalds] is changing the industry, because they have such tremendous buying power and that’s good for us,” said Cardone.
One of the most difficult aspects of sourcing is deciding which factors are important and balancing costs. Almost any alternative to the industrial food system comes at a higher cost.
A primary benefit of organic farming is that for crops, organic certification places limits on the use of potentially harmful synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. However, many chemicals can still be used, as long as they’ve been deemed ‘essential,’ by the USDA. According to Cardone, Bowdoin occasionally buys organic foods, but they are not a priority. The PFG order guide shows an availability of some organic produce but not a significant amount.
“Organic isn’t on top of the list—local’s on top of the list,” said Cardone. “Some products that we buy are organic but that’s not what we’re focusing on, we’re focusing on local.”
Buying locally produced food has become one of the most well-known and effective ways to avoid the external costs of the industrial food system. According to the Bowdoin Dining Services website, “Bowdoin sources approximately 34 percent of food purchases from local vendors.” Caiazzo said this percentage is calculated as a percentage of the dining services budget. The primary items included in this calculation are ground beef, milk, some seafood, apples, tomatoes and some produce.
However, buying locally in Maine is not easy.
“You always want to be able to plan to use more local food as it becomes available,” said Cardone. “The issue in Maine is that it’s very seasonal, so you need the ability to process and store [food].”
The local food economy in Maine is not large or diverse enough to support Bowdoin entirely. Many farms are simply too small. Even if a farmer is able to produce enough livestock to satisfy Bowdoin’s high demand, all of that meat has to be processed. While meat production in Maine has increased, a lack of meat processing facilities in the region has hindered significant growth of the market. According to Cardone, some producers in Maine have shipped their cattle out of state to be processed then shipped back. At that point, its financial and environmental costs rise dramatically.
“Think about the volume,” said Cardone. “We used 30,000 chicken breasts from March to the end of April. Think about the state of Maine and these small farms that produce poultry and pork. They’re raising 15 hogs—it’s just not there yet.”
Farm size, the short growing season and greater cost are the three biggest obstacles to local sourcing in Maine.
“A lot of it depends on the season, a lot if it is market driven,” Cardone said. “If we get an opportunity to jump on something, we watch it closely; we’re going to do that. You have to.”
Caiazzo said that in the future, he hopes to work with local farms before the growing season so that farms can match their production to Bowdoin’s needs and specifications.
“[We hope to] look at ways we can work with local growers and farmers to help grow their businesses,” he said. “Because they need to scale up to be able to provide to us at a reasonable cost and if we don’t do anything about it, they’ll never hit that next scale.”
Bowdoin currently freezes some local produce at its peak availability and lowest cost in the summertime, but Caiazzo hopes to do more of this in the future. This could significantly increase the amount of local produce and even seafood that Bowdoin uses, however Dining is limited by a lack of freezer space.
“There isn’t a food service that I know that food storage isn’t an issue,” said Cardone.
Dining is also faced with the difficulty of what to do when student tastes and ethics collide. For example, bananas are Bowdoin’s most popular fruit, with Dining bringing in around 51,000 pounds every year. However, Bowdoin Amnesty has recently been bringing discussion of the problems surrounding the harvesting of bananas in South and Central America to campus. Caiazzo confirmed that Bowdoin’s bananas are from that area. Cardone said it would be very difficult to stop offering the fruit because of its popularity.
“It’s a matter of educating your customer base,” he said. “Eat an apple, eat a pear. They’re local. It’s a juggle and it’s a balancing act.”
Despite the difficulty and complexity, Cardone said that Dining works hard to stay responsive to student’s requests and current food trends.
“It’s a changing landscape,” he said. “What we did last year doesn’t work this year and what we’re doing this year won’t work next year. You can’t sit on your laurels.”
Student opinion and conviction about sourcing ranges, but many seem to be aware of local and organic foods in Bowdoin’s dining halls. However, at the end of the day, everyone has to eat.
“I always pay close attention to when it is local or organic,” said Alice Jones ’17. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m more inclined to eat it.”
“[I] wish we knew more about where we get meat and things like that,” said Kayla Kaufman ’18.
“What could be cool is a little bit more transparency or a little bit more knowledge of sneaky things that have huge carbon footprints,” said Clare McLaughlin ’15. “For example, things like almonds are just not good for the environment but we don’t think about that and no one talks about that and it’s not advertised.”
McLaughlin added that she thinks sourcing could be more sustainable if Dining used its resources more effectively.
“I think you could decrease the extravagance on some things to make other things more sustainable,” she said.
Bowdoin Dining’s massive operation is one of the most well-known aspects of the College, and making food on such a large scale is no easy task.