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Published February 14, 2023 at 1:44 p.m. | Updated February 15, 2023 at 10:11 a.m.
It was peak lunch in the University of Vermont's Central Campus Dining hall on a recent Friday around noon. Students lined up for grilled cheese sandwiches, while a few chose Vermont Bean Crafters bean burgers to go with their fries. Nearby, a rustic-style wooden cart held crates of apples. A sign with the logo "Vermont First" indicated their source: Champlain Orchards in Shoreham.
Deeper in the dining hall, past pizzas and a station offering honey-balsamic pork with caramelized onions, zucchini and polenta, students served themselves from pans of blackened tofu, lemon-garlic broccoli, baked catfish and Cajun-roasted potatoes.
Another Vermont First sign noted the potatoes came from a program called Just Cut, run by the nonprofit Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick. The program makes "fresh-cut and frozen local vegetables to sell to institutional markets like UVM," the sign detailed. "Each week, they wash, peel and dice thousands of pounds of local vegetables like potatoes, carrots and beets."
UVM's largest dining hall serves 4,000 to 5,000 meals a day, executive chef Armand Lundie said. Run by the international company Sodexo, along with the rest of UVM's campus dining, the Central Campus operation currently has a lean full-time kitchen crew of 25.
"We could use double that — easily," Lundie said. "I just don't have anyone to cut potatoes or peel carrots or peel beets."
Unlike whole Vermont apples or premade local bean burgers, locally sourced root vegetables require a lot of hands-on prep before they reach hungry students. Sodexo, like many employers, is short-staffed coming out of the pandemic, and that's where Just Cut enters the picture.
"It's a solution for schools and hospitals to buy local product in a form they can use that's nutrient-dense and high-quality," said Just Cut program manager Lotty Roozekrans. "We've done the middle-person work of processing it."
In 2022, the Just Cut team purchased and processed about 155,000 pounds of produce from 19 farms, most in Vermont. While the program launched a decade ago, the current labor crisis and the recent reminders of national supply chain fragility bring home its importance to the local food system.
By purchasing fresh produce from farms and lightly processing it, Just Cut helps UVM and other labor-pinched institutions, such as hospitals and school districts, serve more locally and regionally grown food. As for farmers, the program offers them a reliable revenue stream and access to new markets.
That appeals to Eli Hersh and Valerie Woodhouse, who started Honey Field Farm in Norwich in late 2019. They have no interest in processing their own vegetables for institutional buyers, Hersh said: "It involves more food safety [protocols] and sharp blades than we have kicking around."
From its 2022 harvest, Honey Field Farm sold about 1,200 pounds each of red and green cabbage to Just Cut — "not a huge amount, but a good baseline," Hersh said.
Beyond the income, working with Just Cut meets an overarching goal for the couple. "We really like having more ways to get our food into local kitchens," Hersh said. "It's about putting as much Vermont food as we can into the local food system."
Many of the potatoes in the UVM dining hall come from Sparrow Arc Farm in Guildhall. Matt Linehan, its farmer-owner, expects to sell about 60,000 pounds of potatoes to Just Cut from his 2022 harvest.
"We love them," Linehan said of the program. "What they do is amazing. They sell chopped-up potatoes to UVM. No muss, no fuss on my end."
Though Just Cut isn't his largest or most profitable account, Linehan said he appreciates its clear communication, up-front commitment and prompt payment. And he likes having access to the kind of large institutional account that usually requires a long relationship-building process and stacks of paperwork. To feed the student appetite for home fries alone, the kitchen at UVM's Central Campus cafeteria goes through 180 pounds of diced Just Cut potatoes daily — most grown at Sparrow Arc or Chappelle's Vermont Potatoes in Williamstown.
It would be easier and cheaper to serve nationally sourced, preprocessed potatoes, executive chef Lundie acknowledged. But UVM and Sodexo are approaching the decade anniversary of the Vermont First effort, which prioritizes purchasing local food as a way to support the state's economy and agricultural landscape.
"Local is great. I live here. I grew up here," Lundie said. He estimated that local food can cost as much as three times more than nationally sourced equivalents, but "the quality's better with local. The university wants local. It's a dance," he said.
UVM has standing weekly Just Cut orders for 1,620 pounds of diced potatoes, 634 pounds of whole peeled or diced carrots, and 140 pounds of whole peeled beets during the academic year. Beyond home fries, the vegetables go into soups, such as carrot-ginger and Spanish chorizo and potato; a roasted beet and orange salad; and main courses, such as potato-kale hash with vegan cheese sauce and pot roast with roasted vegetables.
Asked whether students notice or care about local ingredients, Lundie said he wasn't sure. But during the recent Friday lunch, Jamie Kaplan, a sophomore from Long Island, N.Y., affirmed that some do.
Holding a plate of Cajun-roasted potatoes and broccoli, Kaplan recalled that "When I applied [to UVM], local was advertised. It was something I did look for." As an environmental studies major, she added, "I like to know where my food is coming from."
UVM Medical Center in Burlington is another long-standing Just Cut customer and its most consistent year-round account. That continuity is important, because school orders tend to be seasonal, Roozekrans noted.
At the hospital, a kitchen team of 60 makes about 1,000 patient meals a day, as well as food for the on-site cafés, said nutrition services buyer Scott Young. Especially in a tight labor market, Young said, Just Cut "saves our staff time when they're not taking on [for example] a whole head of cabbage."
The shredded cabbage that he used to source from a national food-service distributor was cheaper, Young acknowledged, but "Who knows where that comes from?" He said the hospital has long struck a balance between the desire to maximize local sourcing and concerns about availability, efficiency and cost. "We're all about impacting the local economy as much as we can," Young said.
The cost gap between local and national produce has shrunk over the past 18 months or so, Young noted, as national prices have jumped. He likes the fact that price increases at Just Cut are always preceded by a conversation. "They just don't leap unexpectedly that way," he said.
Currently, Young has standing weekly orders for 40 pounds of shredded cabbage, 80 pounds of shredded carrots, 20 pounds of diced red beets and 30 pounds of frozen, diced carrots. The hospital deploys most of the vegetables in salads, slaws and soups, such as a perennial patient favorite: housemade chicken noodle. Shredded carrots star in a popular walnut-studded carrot cake.
But someone still needs to cut up all those carrots. One afternoon last week, in a 550-square-foot processing room at the Center for an Agricultural Economy's Vermont Food Venture Center, a three-person Just Cut production team was finishing up a batch of 150 pounds of carrots from West Farm in Jeffersonville. The carrots had been hand-trimmed, peeled in an abrasion washer, julienned in a machine and sealed by hand into five-pound bags.
Earlier that day, the team had diced potatoes from Sparrow Arc Farm and beets from Shetler Family Farm in Brownington, as well as shredded cabbage from Bear Roots Farm in Williamstown.
In her office, Roozekrans noted that a recent $125,000 Henry P. Kendall Foundation New England Food Vision Prize has reinvigorated Just Cut's work with K-12 schools in the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union and Caledonia Central Supervisory Union, as well as increased its sales to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. The grant does not pay for the produce, but it will help schools purchase cooking equipment to use it efficiently.
Roozekranz said she recently received an inquiry from the Boston school system, expressing interest in buying several thousand pounds of produce weekly. Just Cut lacks the capacity to expand to that level of production. But the interest underscores the fact that "There aren't too many other models like Just Cut out there," Roozekrans said.
Economics may account for that. Just Cut revenue covers only about 75 percent of the program's costs, which include production labor, raw ingredients, packaging and renting the processing kitchen, Roozekrans explained. The Center for an Agricultural Economy subsidizes the gap.
"Buying from local farms and selling to institutional markets, which have a price threshold, is not a break-even model," Roozekrans acknowledged.
Angus Baldwin, farmer-owner of Just Cut supplier West Farm, observed that the program's value goes beyond what a financial spreadsheet can measure. For instance, Just Cut helps him reduce waste by providing a market for carrots that have grown too big for retail sale.
In the bigger picture, Baldwin believes we should support programs such as Just Cut "if we are all committed to a more resilient, locally based food economy." While the global food system is "all about consolidation and scale," Baldwin feels a system built on community relationships promises more security. Compared with anonymous commodity carrots grown in California, there are fewer miles and more personal connections between West Farm's carrots and the UVM dining hall.
"That should be on our mind after the last three years," Baldwin said.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Kitchen Assist | Just Cut program helps Vermont institutions serve more local produce"
Tags: Agriculture, Just Cut, Center for an Agricultural Economy, Vermont produce, local ingrednients
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