Posted May 12, 2016
In 2015, Farm to Institution New England (FINE), Real Food Challenge, Environment Maine, and Maine Farmland Trust, along with hundreds of students, farmers, advocates, and community members, worked together to create preferential sourcing for Maine and New England produced foods in the University of Maine System’s 2015-16 food service Request for Proposal (RFP) and contracting process. The project was funded via Jane’s Trust. The group of organizations and other stakeholders was called the Maine Food for the UMaine System coalition. The UMaine System represents seven universities across the state (see graphic below), all of which were a part of this contract, except for the flagship campus in Orono.
"Making a commitment like this one reinforces that this is Maine’s university system and that the system is intrinsically connected to the people and economy of the state." - Tyler Kidder, Former USM Sustainability Coordinator
Through research, developing recommendations, coalition-building, stakeholder engagement, and media coverage, the group was able to successfully influence the UMaine System food service contracting process over the course of 2015. The RFP included a commitment to reaching 20 percent local/regional foods by 2020, and several additional elements were also included that took into account sustainability measures and other recommendations from the Maine Food for the UMaine System coalition. Not all of the coalition’s recommendations were adopted, for example, the recommendation of a 20 percent Real Food commitment was not included. The inclusion of these recommendations and commitments in the RFP required the competing vendors to submit a proposal that reflected their method for reaching these goals.
The UMaine System continues to work with some of the partnering organizations to inform their contract governance and metrics development, and lessons learned from this effort are being shared across the region and included as a part of the FINE Food Service Project Toolkit.
Student Voices Compilation
Farmer Voices Compilation
In 2014, FINE staff learned that the UMaine System would be re-bidding its overarching food service contract that applied to six of its seven universities. Contract processes had been identified as an important place to commit to local and sustainable food goals because of their role in clarifying institutional values and governing the practices and expectations of the vendor. Therefore, this contract provided a great opportunity and the potential for high impact, given that it influenced six campuses at once.
A collaborative group formed to influence this process and it was called the Maine Food for the UMaine System coalition. The project team for the coalition included representation from FINE, Real Food Challenge, Environment Maine, and Maine Farmland Trust. The group spent a lot of time early on defining values and goals in order to have a foundation for moving forward.
The coalition, with both collective and individual organizational efforts, engaged a broad group of stakeholders throughout the state, including students, producers, processors, faculty, nonprofit staff, elected officials, and other interested community members. These individuals and organizations were engaged in a variety of ways:
- Many attended informational meetings and workshops
- 300 students completed surveys about their food preferences
- More than 50 stakeholders endorsed the coalition’s RFP recommendations
- More than 150 farmers signed a call to action letter encouraging the UMaine System to support the coalition’s recommendations
- More than 1500 signed an online petition expressing support for local and Real Food
- And another 600 signed a note that went to the UMaine System’s Chancellor’s office.
The coalition communicated directly with the UMaine System administrators in the Procurement Office who managed the RFP process. Over the course of the year, several coalition members participated in six phone calls with them. Some calls were purely informational so that the coalition would understand an upcoming decision or announcement, while others were more discussion-based so that both groups could gain better understanding of the other’s processes and goals.
In addition to building statewide awareness about the RFP process and generating support for local and sustainable food more broadly, the coalition also spent a lot of time developing “Recommendations for the Food Service Contracting Process.” These detailed recommendations were based on the coalition’s shared goals and values, and were formatted so that they could easily be cut and pasted into a formal RFP document. They included samples from existing RFPs and contracts, as well as many additional items that were developed by the coalition members. The recommendations were provided to the known UMaine System RFP Committee members, and were also shared publicly with the press.
"The implications of this commitment are far reaching not only for UMS, but also for local and state economies and communities." - Dr. Melissa Ladenheim, Associate Dean, Honors College, University of Maine
Two large multinational companies chose to bid on the UMaine System RFP for food service - Aramark & Sodexo. Aramark held the previous contract with the UMaine System for ten years, and held individual campus contracts within the system for as long as 30-40 years. Sodexo managed other accounts in Maine, but did not have any accounts within the UMaine System at the time of this process. A third company also bid on the RFP, the Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative, which is a member-owned company focused primarily on supporting Maine producers. The company formed with a goal of winning the UMaine System bid and demonstrating the ways that innovative new models of food service could help transform institutional food service. In the end, Sodexo won the bid for all six campuses that were part of this contract. The length of the contract is 5 years, with 5 one-year renewal options, and it begins on July 1, 2016.
Maine Farmland Trust, with funding from John Merck Fund, held wholesale workshops for farmers throughout the state in both 2015 and 2016. They were done in partnership with MOFGA, FINE, UMaine Cooperative Extension, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), and Cultivating Community. The workshops were meant to provide more farms with education and tools that would help them access larger wholesale markets, including institutional markets. Farmers from 68 farms participated in 2015 and another 22 farms participated in 2016. The workshops also included access to one-on-one technical assistance for farmers to help them reach their wholesale market goals. Many of these farms are interested to access markets like the University of Maine System in the coming years.
(Photo Credit: Olivia Hollingsworth)
Top Priorities - Recommendations to the UMaine System
The coalition developed a long set of goals and recommendations to capture a vision for a locally-based, sustainable food system supported by the UMaine System. The goals and recommendations were based on input from students, farmers, nonprofits, faculty, and other stakeholders, individual organizational missions and experience, examples from other campuses, and a desire to create a better Maine food system as a result of this process and its momentum. The top priorities are captured below.
RFP/Contract Process Priorities
Decision-Making Rubric For The RFP CommitteeCreate a scoring system when evaluating Vendor proposals that assigns weight to local foods procurement, sustainability, Maine economic impact, and more. See example rubric in our recommendations.
Contract Length Recommendation: 5 YearsShorten the next food service contract to five years maximum (from 10 years) in order to create accountability and a more engaged partnership with the Vendor.
Public Forum / Q&A For VendorOffer an open forum as a part of the RFP process in December for community and campus individuals and groups to ask questions and hear Vendor responses.
RFP/Contract Language Priorities
Quantitative (20%) Purchasing CommitmentsBy 2020, purchase a minimum of each of the percentages below, where the percentage is based on the total dollars spent on food.
- Prioritize New England Food as a source for Real Food and foods that cannot be sourced from Maine.
- Increase the percent targets incrementally if the contract extends beyond the 2020-2021 academic year.
- 20 percent Maine Food: Identify percentage goals for six product categories by the end of the first year of the contract in partnership with the University of Maine System Food Working Group.
- 20 percent Real Food: This includes products that are local & community based, fair, ecologically sound and/or humane.
Create A University Of Maine System Food Working Group Convened By The University
- Led by students and staff/faculty/administrators.
- Expect Vendor participation in the group.
- Through the group, actively monitor adherence to contract requirements and act in partnership with the Vendor to research and implement new products, dining hall education, producer outreach, and more.
Tracking & Metrics With The Real Food CalculatorUse the Real Food Calculator to track Real Food and Maine Food purchasing, which includes the hiring of students on each campus to run these assessments.
Supply Chain Partnership & Development
- Commit to a minimum of 20 percent Maine Food.
- Implement innovative strategies for improving access to Maine Food.
- Commit to collaboration with the University System and community partners to identify strategic production needs that align with University System demand for food products and work collaboratively and creatively to address these needs.
- Offer an Annual Supplier/Producer meeting & transparent bidding process.
- Provide transparent pricing and volume information.
Fairness & Legality in Public Contracting Processes
The University of Maine System had the difficult job of trying to manage a fair and legal process that fit within a specific timeline, while also engaging a lot of interested stakeholders who were both on campus and off. This created a tension between honoring a controlled and legal process and meaningfully engaging stakeholders who wanted to be involved. The challenge being, engaging stakeholders who aren't formally included in committees and other outreach, who might feel like the process is inaccessible. The committees included student representation from what we understood, though many students were unaware of this process. We were not provided with a list of RFP Committee members, which made it more difficult to identify who it was that we were trying to influence, and/or to provide a name at the different campuses who our contacts (faculty, staff, students, etc.) could reach out to for more information.
Stakeholder Access to RFP Process
The UMaine System administrators spoke with us on multiple occasions throughout the process and adopted some of the recommendations that we submitted. However, elements such as Real Food were not included in the final RFP, which left some stakeholders feeling unheard. Student leaders, in particular, felt that their concerns about sustainable food and fair treatment of labor were not well-represented in the process or final RFP. Similarly, there were faculty that did not feel that they could engage formally to provide their input. It was an ongoing challenge to figure out which parts of the RFP and contract decision-making process were legitimately closed off to most stakeholders because of legality and fairness to the vendors, and what parts could have had more transparency.
There was no formal public forum offered as a part of the UMaine System RFP Process. This would have allowed any student, faculty, staff, or community member to attend and provide input about the food service contract. The UMaine System instead gathered information through focus groups and interviews conducted by the consultant that was hired, and through surveys of students and others on campuses throughout the System. This work happened prior to the release of the RFP. The Maine Food for the UMaine System coalition felt that a public event that was open to any stakeholders and included the vendors that were bidding on the contract would have been a great addition to the process. The coalition attempted to organize an event, but only one vendor agreed to participate. The other vendors were unsure about the importance of the event since it was not endorsed by the UMaine System. We cancelled the event and offered another one for students to learn more about food service contracting.
The Perception of Local Food versus Real Food
Local food seemed to resonate with a broad group of stakeholders in Maine, likely due to its rural and agricultural identity. The Board of Trustees for the UMaine System responded to this by implementing a policy change that reflected their interest in more local foods. They, and many other stakeholders, understood “local” without a lot of effort from advocates, but they did not understand “real” food without more of an in-depth conversation or outreach strategy. The complexity of the Real Food Calculator and its criteria make it difficult to convey concisely in a conversation or press release. The press did not focus on Real Food or do much to tell that story, despite its inclusion in our press releases. This also relates to the lack of formal channels for participation from many of the students who were knowledgeable and articulate about their desire for real food.
Supply & Scale of Producers
There are producers at scale in Maine that are able to produce large volumes of certain products for wholesale markets. These producers will likely allow the UMaine System and Sodexo to reach their local foods commitment. However, there is still some concern about the availability of supply in the longer term as the demand for these products continues to grow. Maine Farmland Trust’s series of wholesale workshops for farmers in 2015 and 2016 tended to draw small or mid-sized farmers that wanted to expand further into wholesale production. These farmers represent the producers that are likely to fill some of this demand in future years. From that group of over 80 farms in total, there are only a small number that would be able to sell to the UMaine System currently. However, many are interested to sell into that market, but are likely to require several additional years of technical assistance in order to scale up to meet these larger volumes and more complex supply chains.
Geography & Capacity
In order to connect with dozens of students, faculty, staff, community members, producers, and others to inform them about what was happening with the contracting process, it required a lot of face-to-face time, as well as virtual outreach, from organizers. Some of the campuses required six hours of driving or more in one direction from the southern part of the state, and even more for the organizers based in the Boston area. This was anticipated to some degree, but more staff time allotted to visits to all of the individual campuses would have been beneficial, particularly to create more awareness around Real Food.
As with any coalition effort, there were a few challenges along the way in reconciling different viewpoints about the best strategy for moving forward. Sometimes, it was hard to determine the role of the coalition as a united entity versus the role of individual organizations. Different organizations had differing views about how to make change at times and how to best engage with the University System administrators. Different organizations also had different availability and capacity to carry out their pieces of the work.
"I have met many inspiring people working with the Real Food Challenge. Through collaboration and consultation they have helped me build deeper relationships with students and professors at my university, as well as student leaders and regional and national organizers. I have connected with farmers and people working behind the scenes to build a stronger local food system. This has allowed me the opportunity to connect with people who are doing the things I want to be doing.” -Bobbi-Jo Oatway, Real Food Challenge Student Organizer, University of Maine, Presque Isle
(Photo credit: Olivia Hollingsworth)
Key Takeaways & Lessons Learned
Contract Processes are Key Leverage Points
Contract processes like this one provide important opportunities to seek transparency and accountability in public agencies and food systems. These contracts can range from one year to as many as twenty years. The most recent UMaine System contracts for food service have been in place for ten year increments. The Vendor and the University are legally bound by the contract, and the language within the contract serves as the authority that governs their behavior and accountability. These moments in time provide an opportunity to ask for shorter contract terms, create definitions and quantitative goals for local and sustainable procurement, tracking of these foods, and more.
RFP & Contract Processes are Complex & Fairness is a Key Concern to Institutions
Legality, fairness, and public contracting are complex and detailed. They are not always well understood by advocates, by farmers, by students, by faculty, or by some of the administrators at the institution. Often, a consultant is hired to manage components of the process and to provide additional expertise. The reality is that the bidding companies are spending a lot of money in preparing their proposals in hopes that they will win the contract, and so they are very sensitive to any perceived favoritism or lack of fairness. They are not likely to hesitate in fighting a decision if they feel that it wasn’t fair or legal, and this often leads to a prolonged contract process and could lead to legal battles for the institution. Institutional procurement officials aim to avoid this by having a clearly defined process with the same information available to all bidders at the same time and the same access for all “special interest groups.”
Public Forums are Important for Transparency
A public forum can be an important event to engage stakeholders and provide more direct communication between students, faculty, farmers, community members, nonprofits, and others to decision-makers and the vendors who are bidding on the contract. It is important to advocate for this more strongly earlier in the process to ensure that it is endorsed by the institution.
Students Care Deeply About Real Food AND Local Food
While farmers, community members, many nonprofits, and UMaine System decision-makers seemed to support “local” food more easily than they did “real” food, values in addition to local (organic, fair labor, humane treatment of animals), were very important to students. Students are arguably the most important stakeholder in a University food service contracting process and there is a need to engage students more fully in these processes. This could happen in a variety of ways that are both formal (inclusion on RFP Committees in larger numbers) and informal (organizing more student trainings and informational sessions on campus long before the start of the contracting process to build awareness). It also needs to be something that becomes a clear priority in the outreach to other stakeholders and to the press as well, to ensure that the decision-makers, farmers, community members, and other nonprofits fully understand Real Food, its importance, and its relationship to local food.
Developing Shared Goals as a Coalition is Important Early On
When participating in a coalition effort, be sure to collectively reach clarity about the elements that all groups will commit to moving forward together on, and which elements might only be of interest to a subset of the coalition members. Write it all down and ask everyone to review and confirm. Once those are established, develop a clear sense of responsibility, timelines, and expectations from other members of the coalition. This can take a lot of time at the beginning and throughout as things evolve and need to be adapted, but is worthwhile and necessary. The group should remain a united front as much as possible and also find space for individual organizations to do work that may not always align with the coalition efforts. To allow for this, it is beneficial for the communication between groups to remain open and transparent and for it to be clear to others what is a coalition effort and what is not.
Engage a Broad Set of Stakeholders
To ensure that many voices can participate, feel connected, and support your efforts, provide opportunities to contribute for as wide of a group of stakeholders as possible. This means opportunities that are more in-depth for the most committed people and some that are brief touch points for those who are interested, but have less time. To do this well, requires the project team developing a long list of stakeholders and networks at the beginning of the project, as well as various strategies to engage them in moving your goals forward.
When Working on a Geographically Distributed Project - Make Time for Face Time
Be sure to allocate enough time for multiple visits to the key institutions or communities that are relevant to your work across the state. The face-to-face time is invaluable for building trust and relationships, creating awareness, and generating energy and momentum across the state.
Take the Time to Develop Your Narrative & Communications Strategy
Develop a strategic communications, storytelling, and press strategy as a critical component of your effort. This is the best way to get the attention of and influence decision-makers, and engage a broad group of stakeholders. To do this well, you need to know who the various decision-makers are and what they care about.
"This was an amazing effort, and I was proud to be a part of it - thank you all for your hard work and congratulations on the successes!" - Kyle Foley, Sustainable Seafood Brand Manager, Gulf of Maine Research Institute