Dining halls employ many different strategies to improve animal welfare by serving ‘less and better’ animal products. Earlier this year we spoke with Carolyn Gahn, sustainability manager for Aramark at The University of Kentucky (UK), who makes such higher welfare sourcing possible through the “Whole Animal Program”1. Of the pork and beef served in UK residential dining halls, approximately 70 percent is Global Animal Partnership Step 4 certified, locally sourced meat from Marksbury Farm. By purchasing whole animals from local higher welfare farms, UK demonstrates how institutions can improve animal welfare, support local economies, and reduce carbon emissions while maintaining affordable dining operations.
Farm Forward: How did you start the Whole Animal Program?
Carolyn Gahn: University of Kentucky Dining Services has a strong commitment to local purchasing from Kentucky farms. Our direct spending requirement for local farms increases annually and we constantly look for innovative strategies to source local food that work best for the farmers and our dining operations. Coming from an agricultural background, I know that selling a whole animal at one time is much better for farmers and we wanted to find a way to make that work on a large scale.
Farm Forward: What were the keys to making the Whole Animal Program a success?
Gahn: As the UK Dining Sustainability Manager, I work with local farms and ranches to build a program that works for our kitchens and the farmers. Our dining halls would typically buy standard cuts of meat to be used in our menus, like pork loin or eye of round roast. When you buy a whole animal you get dozens of different cuts of meat. To make the Whole Animal Program work, we needed to group products by how our chefs use them. We found a way to group cuts into SKUs (stockkeeping units) based on their applications, such as a Roasting Box, Braising Box, Smoking Box, and a Carving Box. This way our team only has to inventory a few items into our purchasing system and can use multiple types of cuts for the same menu option.
We also had to consider how the price per pound was determined. A traditional whole animal program bases price per pound on the hanging weight of the whole animal, which results in a lump sum cost. However, in order for our dining operation to determine plate cost, we needed to pay a price per pound reflective of the market value of those cuts, rather than one lump sum. Working in partnership with Marksbury to determine the proper value, we allocated the total hanging-weight price among our boxes so that we could pay a per-pound price reflecting the value of the cuts in that box. For example, the beef Braising Box (which contains skirt steak, flank steak, and shanks) is valued less than the Carving Box (which contains sirloin and strip loin).
Farm Forward: How has the Whole Animal Program helped UK meet their local and sustainable sourcing goals?
Gahn: With this program, we committed to purchase 3 cows and 5 hogs per week, totaling 84 cows and 140 hogs over the course of the school year. The cows are grass-fed, the pigs are pasture-raised, and all of the animals are raised by Kentucky farmers. The meat is top-notch and helps us reach the following goals:
1. Local spending. All of the products we purchase from Marksbury Farm count toward our contractual farm impact local purchasing goal of $706,194. Next year our local purchasing requirement for farm impact products will increase to $741,503.
2. Sustainable sourcing. The products we purchase from Marksbury Farm are certified by Global Animal Partnership so we can count these purchases toward the long-term sustainability goals of the university (as set forth in our campus Sustainability Strategic Plan) and our AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) Stars reporting.
3. Customer service. We provide our students with the best possible product quality and dining experience.
Farm Forward: How has purchasing whole animal products from Marksbury impacted your costs? If there has been a cost increase on ingredients, have you found ways to balance that cost increase through operational savings?
Gahn: Before this program, we purchased Marksbury meat by the cut. By purchasing the whole animal we pay significantly less per pound. Purchasing whole animals from more sustainable, higher welfare farms still costs more than buying products from conventional farms, yet by simultaneously strategically sourcing more expensive, higher welfare meat and focusing on plant-forward menu options, we have found that our overall food costs have remained on target. For example, we have a Local Salad Bar Program that is the produce twin to the Whole Animal Program. Through this program, we have increased the locally grown produce served on our salad bar by 24,000 pounds for the school year. We have put a big marketing focus on eating fresh salads. Serving more vegetables is naturally going to be more cost effective for a dining hall, in addition to the health, environmental, and animal welfare benefits of plant-forward menus.
Farm Forward: How has using whole animal products or sourcing higher welfare products impacted your menus?
Gahn: Purchasing whole animals has required us to get creative with our menus. We have a Smokehouse station that offers smoked meats daily. We now use cuts that we hadn’t typically served in the dining halls, like beef shanks, and the students love it. Our chefs have risen to the challenge to find ways to use the products we have (like short ribs) to create delicious new menus items.
Farm Forward: What advice would you give to other campuses working on sourcing more humane animal products?
Gahn: Ultimately, sourcing higher welfare, local animal products is only actually sustainable if it works for everyone. Building a committed team is critical for the success of the program. The kitchen staff needs to know how to use the products and understand what the students want as well. The product quality needs to be consistent, with food safety being the absolute number one priority. The biggest consideration we took into account when thinking about sustainable sourcing was, “Does this work for all of the stakeholders involved?” If it’s not working for the farm, then it can’t work for operations; if it’s not working for operations, then it can’t work for the farm.
You can learn more about UK’s Whole Animal Program here.
Farm Forward’s Leadership Circle assists institutional food providers—such as universities, corporations, and nonprofits—in sourcing higher welfare meat, poultry, and eggs while incorporating more plant-based proteins into the meals they serve by providing free consultation and resources. If you are looking for ways to source local, higher welfare meat or offer plant-forward menus in your institution’s dining halls, email us at [email protected].