By: Shawn Russell, Staff Reporter 

Potato field in Aroostook County (photo courtesy of Shawn Russell)

Potato field in Aroostook County (photo courtesy of Shawn Russell)

Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative, the nation’s first farm-to-institution food service, have indicated that they will be bidding on all or part of the new dining services contract for the University of Maine System in 2016. If approved, the cooperative organization will try to integrate locally produced food into UMF, while still maintaining a competitive price compared to other distributors.  The contract will last five years.

For over a decade, UMF students who eat food provided by the university have been eating food supplied by Aramark, a food service distributor based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Aramark currently has a contract with the University of Maine System until June 30, 2016.

“In addition to providing locally sourced food on an institutional level, Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative will provide farmers and fishermen with consistent demand for their products at predictable and fair prices, enhancing Maine’s rural economies and creating jobs,” said Marada Cook, President of Crown o’Maine Cooperative and Board Member of the Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative.

Putting money back into the Maine economy is one of many reasons why Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative could potentially benefit the UMaine System.  Currently, Compass Group, Aramark, and Sodexo, hold 34.8%, 29.2%, and 26.3% of the world’s food service market share, respectively.  These three companies control over 90% of the international food service market.  In 2014, Aramark’s revenue was $13.946 billion, profiting $69 million.

Aside from an economic standpoint, the cooperative will also strive to provide UMaine System schools with higher quality food than ever before.  “We are very excited to work with UMF students, faculty, and staff to create a food program that feeds delicious food on campus and that connects with the community and supports the local economy,” said Jonah Fertig, Board Member of the Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative. The cooperative is aiming at using 20% of local food in their distribution to the UMaine System, and they intend to increase that percentage each year of the contract.  “We will work to source from farms throughout the state and from Franklin County,” said Fertig.

The Sustainable Campus Coalition (SCC) has given feedback to Aramark and helped to organize some survey work to assess students attitudes toward UMF dining. Lucas Kellett, Sustainability Coordinator, explained how the club is involved with the potential new contract. “We have a couple members (including myself) who have helped to give feedback on the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the new dining contract which was released at the end of August,” he said in email interview. “The SCC is interested in finding out more about Maine and Farm Sea and their capacity to provide food for UMF and other campuses in the UM system. We of course are compelled by their non-corporate, cooperative model and their commitment to sourcing local food in Maine.”

Quality of Aramark’s food has been a controversial issue at UMF since the contract began a decade ago. Surveys by the Aramark and UMF administration have found students are most critical of the diversity of food, its freshness and its vegetarian and vegan options.  “Some of the food is very good, while some of it can be very bad quality,” said Justin Evans, a freshman at UMF.  “Some days I’m not even sure what I’m eating and it really isn’t all that good.”

Due to the complaints of students, Aramark has changed the floor plan of the cooking stations, added more on the floor made to order cooks and have tried to respond to the critiques.“I think Aramark has improved their selection of locally produced food and food quality since last year, and I think it’s a response from their contract being at stake,” said Senior Alex Tomaszewski.  “Although Aramark has improved since last year, I think the school would benefit from having a Maine company handling the contract and putting profits back into Maine.”

“At this point, we cannot say too much until they submit their bid for review which will happen this fall,” said Kellett.