Regional conference connects students and industry

Planting Partnerships, a regional conference held at Evergreen College April 26 and 27, has strengthened connections between two parties usually seen as being at odds with one another, say students and Aramark officials.

Planting Partnerships brought together students, university officials, farmers and industry representatives to discuss how locally produced food can be successfully integrated into college dining services.

Student participants from Students for Unity and the Food for Thought group attended. Food for Thought is to be an alternative place for students to find vegan-friendly and fresh local foods. Their intended location in the basement of Smith Memorial Center violates Aramark’s exclusivity contract with PSU. Work is being done to negotiate the space for the new cafe.

Last time organizers of the Planting Partnerships held a conference in Wisconsin and were unable to draw industry reaction, said PSU student Malia Martin, who is affiliated with the Food for Thought group.

This time around, representatives from Aramark, Bon Appetite and Sodexho Marriot attended the conference. Aramark has a contract with PSU to provide food services in Smith Memorial Center.

While it may seem an unlikely gathering of individuals considering student activists’ past contentions with Aramark, Martin said that industry representatives were open to input. “They had the sort of mindset that the students really are our customers and if this is what they want then we should try to address that.”

According to Martin, “Everyone came into it not knowing what to expect.” Once there, all parties began to share their points of view. Students expressed concern about quality and sustainability, and business declared its concern with feasibility.

Micah Hibpshman, operations manager for Aramark at PSU, attended the conference. He said it helped him a great deal in developing contacts and ways of obtaining local produce year-round. “I’m trying to set up a meeting with Organically

Grown,” Hibpshman said. “I met several people who are using this sort of product now.” Hibpshman said he is looking forward to using more local food resources in the future.

Organically Grown is a support organization for Oregon’s organic farmers. Started in 1978, Organically Grown is the largest wholesaler of organic foods in the Northwest. They distribute their own brand of produce, Ladybug, and deal in over 120 different fruits and vegetables.

“The conference really got the message across that it’s not an us or them or bland and white issue,” Martin said, “It’s not as much about organic as it is sustainable, local food sources.”

The next conference in the series, the first nationwide conference of its kind, will be held in October. Entitled “Farm to Cafeteria,” the next conference will also include primary schools in its focus, offering to connect elementary school officials with representatives from the food service and agricultural industries.

The national conference will be sponsored by the National Food Security Coalition (NFSC), The NFSC is a government-funded, nonprofit subsidiary of the USDA, and aided in the funding of Planting Partnerships as well. Hibpshman says he’s interested in attending and Food for Thought will certainly make a showing as well. More information will be available in the coming months.

Students interested in helping the Food for Thought group should call Students for Unity at (503) 725-8777.