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Pundit Mailbag — Where Does ‘Affordability’ Fit Into UC Davis’ Local Decision

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 1, 2010

Our coverage of local and sustainability — and particularly our series on the UC Davis/Sodexo procurement program — has engendered great interest:

More On PMA Foodservice…Everyone Is In Favor Of Better Flavor But Is ‘Local’ A Solution Or An Ideology?

Tom Reardon of Michigan State University Speaks Out: Wither Local?

Dissecting The Meaning Of Local, Sustainable And Flavorful

Pundit Mailbag — Taste Trumps Over ‘Local’

Our latest letter comes from a UC Davis alum:

I wonder if UC Davis decision-makers believe their customers are the students or those who pay the students’ educational fees?

As a UC Davis grad and a current parent supporting a Chico State student, I have come to understand the price/value relationship that I practice daily is quite different from those in the world of academia.

I better get back to work — I need to analyze my price/value matrix and pinch a few more pennies in order to subsidize those whose matrix calculates value in a much different manner.

GO GREEN!

— Stan Foster
Sales Manager
MOARK LLC
Fontana, California

We think Mr. Foster cuts to the chase. To give ‘local’ preferred treatment in procurement has to mean buying local when one otherwise would not have purchased the product. So either the local product did not meet some specification or required more staffing to procure, or the local product was more expensive.

Now if local initiatives simply call for a buying entity to reassess its specifications and so decide that, say, less attractive product is acceptable or different sizes and varieties are acceptable because the priority is going to be on flavor, that could lead to supplier changes without raising costs. It is also true that reassessing menus can lead to more local purchasing. If these types of changes reflect culinary desires to eat at the peak of ripeness, it is unobjectionable and can lead to natural changes in sourcing.

Of course, these changes can also be ideological and, in fact, many kids might welcome grapes in the winter and pineapples, mangos, avocados, papaya and bananas all year long.

Still, the UC Davis goal of “reducing the environmental impact of food purchases and dining operations while maintaining accessibility and affordability for all students” — struck us as obscuring more than it revealed. As we mentioned in an earlier piece, we thought the emphasis on the environment was unexplained — why not a focus on job creation or building world peace through trade? What we didn’t mention was that we also thought that the University wasn’t being fully frank with those who pay the bills.

Maintaining “accessibility and affordability” sounds great, but it is different than promising to not pay more than they would have if they didn’t have this particular ideology.

In fact, in a time of tight budgets, who says there is any money available for these kinds of tangents? Don’t the schools need to hire professors? Buy books for the library? Provide financial aid? Aren’t the parents pressed to pay rising tuitions, buy textbooks?

Even if one believes that “reducing the environmental impact of food purchases” is a desirable goal, who determined that it was more important than keeping dining fees down?

Nobody is saying that those who just love local and want to be locavores shouldn’t do so — with their own money.

The question is on what basis a public university decides to procure this way? Normally there would be laws requiring them to set specifications and then buy from the lowest bidder who meets them.

Perhaps because Sodexo has a contract, UC Davis isn’t procuring directly and so gets away with it. But isn’t Sodexo charging more than it would have if it could purchase based on the most economical product that meets university specs?

And doesn’t that mean that parents are paying higher dining fees than they would have? Did anyone ask them if they want to do that?

Many thanks to Stan Foster and Moark LLC for participating in this industry conversation.

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