Locally-produced food items, popularized at the weekly Dane County farmer’s market, has potential to be used in restaurants.

When it comes to local restaurants using locally-produced food, however, it depends on a number of factors, such as costs and consumer demand.

Lydia Zepeda, University of Wisconsin professor emeritus of consumer science, said in an email to The Badger Herald that using local foods can help our economy. 

Local food may be more expensive, but can be cheaper when the product is in season, Zepeda said. This is because local producers tend to be small, while food coming from other states or countries may be produced in a larger quantity which makes those products cheaper. 

Zepeda added whether or not restaurants choose to use local or non-locally-produced food depends on the type of food they serve and their clientele.

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Richard Jones, general manager of Cheba Hut on West Gilman Street, said the sandwich shop’s meat products come from a Colorado-based company. Most of their vegetables come from Sysco, a food distribution company. Sysco partners with “more local rangers, growers and producers than any distributor in the industry,” according to its website.

“The price of local food is so expensive … we want to cater more to students than anything,” Jones said. “Students want cost effective meals.”

There are people interested in locally-produced food, but there is not a great demand from students, Jones added.

Justin Callaway, assistant general manager of Bassett Street Brunch Club, said for the most part the restaurant uses locally produced foods, like local butchers for meat products. Some products come from food suppliers that ship out nationally through contracts.

Whether or not the restaurant could only use locally-produced food comes down to cost, Callaway said. The restaurant is working within the constraints of business parameters.

If the demand was great enough, Callaway said, the team would do what they could to meet customers’ desires.

“Ultimately that’s who we’re listening to,” Callaway said.

Julia Madsen, the manager of Daily Scoop and Prairie Fire at Union South, said the establishment tries to get most food from local sources. 

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Shauna Breneman, the Wisconsin Union communications director, elaborated in an email that the Wisconsin Union buys products from local companies including coffee roaster Steep and Brew, Lane’s Bakery, Gotham Bagels, Superior Fresh and Babcock Hall.

It’s more environmentally friendly to use local products because shipping locally is not as great of a carbon footprint as shipping from greater distances, Madsen said.

Carl Korz, the Wisconsin Union associate director for dining and hospitality, said consequences to using locally produced food include higher prices.

Korz said, though, that the price is not tremendously higher.

“We think it’s worth paying … that price when it makes sense for us to do so,” Korz said.

Korz said about 24% of the food the Unions sell is locally produced. Local food is defined as being within a 250-mile radius around Madison, or within Wisconsin’s borders.

UW requires a prime distributor for food products to maximize costs and 80% of business is conducted with them, Korz said. The Wisconsin Union, however, can influence this contract. For example, the Wisconsin Union requires that cheese and milk has to be locally produced. 

According to Korz, the current prime distributor, Martin Brothers, is based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and the process of picking a distributor occurs every five years. The contracts are made through the UW Division of Business Services, and distributors apply for a contract. They are chosen using a scoring criteria and a panel of evaluators.

Items like bananas and avocados aren’t locally produced because they can’t be grown in Wisconsin, Madsen said. But there are some items that can be bought out of season.

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The Wisconsin Union buys products from a Wisconsin greenhouse that performs hydroponic farming. This type of farming uses a nutrient-rich solution to deliver water and minerals to a plant’s roots, instead of using soil. It allows plants to be grown in a habitat they don’t usually grow in, according to science education resource BigPicture.

“Our food purchasing decisions are based on the quality and the price,” Madsen said. “But if it’s comparable product that can be sourced locally, we are always going to go local first.”

Farming practices are also considered, Madsen added. The Unions had previously stopped selling milk from an Illinois farm, after it was discovered to be abusing their animals last year.

The Wisconsin Union also has partnerships with Wisconsin-based companies, such as the homeless shelter Porchlight. People who are seeking the shelter’s services can work for Porchlight Products, and the Wisconsin Union buys its products, Korz said.

“We purchase products from them, which in turn generates jobs for people who need it,” Korz said.

One of the products the Wisconsin Union buys from Porchlight is sauerkraut.  

People do seem to be interested in where their food is coming from, Korz said.

“They trust us to be good actors,” Korz said. “They have trust in the Wisconsin Union brand and we want to live up to that trust.”