With deep local partnerships, Brown Dining Services helps to boost regional food economy

As part of its mission to serve fresh, healthy, high-quality foods, Dining Services at Brown directs its spending power to New England food producers, supporting small businesses and helping to spark growth.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — From enticing crowds at events and get-togethers to satisfying late-night cravings, pizza is one of the world’s most popular foods and a staple in the college-student diet. At Brown University, the cheesy dish is a menu fixture at campus dining halls, which offer roughly 10,000 meals a day to students, faculty and staff, including about 1,550 slices of pizza.

So when Brown’s dining team brainstormed ways to devote even more of their food budget to local spending, one food product was at the top of the list — cheese.

"We asked ourselves: 'How can we have the biggest impact with a local vendor?'” said Ty Paup, director of culinary operations for Brown Dining Services. "We turned right to cheese because of all the pizza we make across campus. The amount of shredded mozzarella we need is huge."

To bake so many slices of pizza, Brown purchases nearly 75,000 pounds of shredded mozzarella each academic year. Paup already ordered some artisan cheeses from Providence-based Narragansett Creamery, and he wanted that same fresh, high-quality, locally sourced ingredient for pizzas. But to Paup’s disappointment, the small business didn't have the equipment to shred and pack mozzarella, said Mark Federico, owner of Narragansett Creamery.

"Brown's chefs continued to ask, 'Mark, can you make us a shredded mozzarella?' and I had to say no because I didn't have the equipment," Federico said. "We hoped to at some point, but we weren't sure when, so we had to keep saying no."

Federico assumed that Brown would drop the request and find a larger, likely national distributor that could meet campus needs. But an unexpected phone call from Robert Noyes, director of retail operations for Brown Dining Services said otherwise — Noyes and colleagues at Brown had identified a grant opportunity that would award the Federico family the funding they needed to invest in shredding equipment that could enable the creamery to prepare and supply Brown's sizeable demand for pre-shredded mozzarella. The Henry P. Kendall Foundation awards over $1 million in New England Food Vision Prize funds each year to projects that increase the amount of local and regional food served on New England college and university campuses. 

"Our vision for the grant was to fill a production gap — universities literally use tons of shredded mozzarella cheese yearly, but cannot find a local product," Noyes said. "Narragansett Creamery is a reliable, high-quality local supplier but could not produce the product universities use most frequently. The grant helped us break down a problem where there was major demand, but no local supply." 

stretching mozzarella demo
Narragansett Creamery Owner Mark Federico visits the Brown campus to demonstrate how to hand stretch fresh mozzarella.

With Brown's support behind the grant application, the Kendall Foundation awarded Narragansett Creamery a $250,000 prize in 2019 to purchase an industrial cheese shredder. Adding the new equipment led Narragansett Creamery to expand its production and customer base. The Providence company soon started supplying shredded mozzarella for Brown, Roger Williams University and Smith College. Today, it delivers thousands of pounds of pizza cheese each year for both universities and K-12 lunch programs, among other customers.

Producing shredded mozzarella also led the creamery to expand its staff and test and develop new products, including one-pound blocks of unsalted butter, which they create from the excess fat stripped from the milk used for the shredded mozzarella. The Federicos now plan to sell the butter, shredded mozzarella and other new products in nearly a dozen markets around Rhode Island where their other cheeses are available.

For Narragansett Creamery, the Food Vision Prize catalyzed growth that the small business may have never realized without support and perseverance from staff in Brown Dining Services, Federico said.

"They didn't take no for an answer," Federico said. "They found a way to make shredded mozzarella happen, and I'm so glad they did because maybe I wouldn't have been able to get it done. It's why we feel so strongly about our relationship with Brown."

Small business growth spurs economic opportunities for other partners too, Federico said. Producing high volumes of shredded mozzarella has increased the creamery's demand for milk sourced from family-owned dairy farms in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

"The Kendall Foundation prize was a tremendous win for us, for Brown and for the local farmers," Federico said. "What people don't realize is that when we talk about supporting local agriculture, it's not just farmers — it's the local suppliers, businesses and contractors that help us keep our business successful. The win doesn't just affect Brown and us; it affects many people."

A commitment to buying from local vendors

Beyond mozzarella, Narragansett Creamery supplies Brown with other artisan cheeses, including feta and ricotta, and in recent years, began stocking the University's orders for yogurt, which is featured daily in a fruit and yogurt bar at Sharpe Refectory, the largest dining hall on campus.

Yet Brown’s commitment to purchasing food grown and produced locally goes much further than yogurt and cheese. To transition away from purchasing from brands that transport food hundreds or thousands of miles, Dining Services has worked intentionally and continually to expand its local supplier list, which currently includes nearly 50 New England farmers and food providers.

George Barboza, vice president of dining programs, said that supporting the regional food system is a charge embedded in all facets of the University's dining operation, and one that advances Brown's larger mission to serve the greater good and positively impact the local community.

"Local purchasing is part of the ethos of Brown Dining," Barboza said. "As an academic institution, we are a pillar in the local economy and ecosystem, and we must continue to act as leaders and partners who are committed to investing in the success of our community."

In recent years, Brown's culinary team has expanded its local food purchasing from produce and local fish to meat, legumes, grains, bakery products and coffee. Today, approximately 35% of Brown's $13 million annual food spend is supplied by regional farms, orchards, mills and other local food producers and vendors — from nuts (Virginia & Spanish Peanut Co. in Providence) and fruit cups (Robert's Precut Vegetables in Cranston, R.I.) in grab-and-go-kiosks, to the Sharpe Refectory’s "Catch of the Day" (Red's Best in Boston) and soft-serve ice cream (Winsor Dairy in Johnston, R.I.), to sports fans enjoying the beer garden (Narragansett Brewery in Providence) and food trucks (Saugy Franks in Cranston) at Brown Athletics games.

For every recipe where it's possible, Brown's dining team incorporates farm-fresh, locally sourced ingredients in daily menu planning not just to be a good community partner, but because of the quality — it tastes better and is more nutritious, its chefs say. Local food purchasing is also a pillar in the University’s sustainability efforts and ongoing goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimize Brown's energy footprint.

But dining leaders also recognize the significant social and economic impact an institution of Brown's size can make through its purchasing power. In 2022, the University invested $218 million to purchase goods and services from more than 1,000 Rhode Island vendors.

"Brown's dining operation purchases $13 million worth of food each year, and where those dollars are spent is important," Paup said. "We're committed to supporting our region with those dollars, because that helps to make our economy thrive."

Brown's chefs select seasonal produce from regional farms that are owner-operated, located within 150 miles of campus, and that bring in less than $5 million in annual revenues. Tomatoes, for example, are sourced from Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, Massachusetts, lettuce is cropped from Queen's Greens in Amherst, Massachusetts, and apples are delivered from Horse Listener's Orchard in Ashford, Connecticut. Some local farms that run small operations depend on steady, bulk orders from area colleges and universities, Paup said. 

"When we're buying apples, we're buying 25,000 apples a week, and because of our purchasing volume, that impact on the farmer's bottom line is huge," he said. "During the New England farm season, we're not sourcing apples from Oregon and Washington. At Brown, we want that personal relationship with the local farmer, and we’re giving them our business first."

For Blackbird Farm, Rhode Island’s colleges and universities account for some of the most significant orders, said owner Ann Marie Bouthillette. The 250-acre family-owned farm in Smithfield, R.I., raises Black Angus cattle and American Heritage Berkshire pigs. Brown's campus community can average close to 15,000 people during the academic year, and Bouthillette says that campus-wide exposure and word-of-mouth marketing can help boost sales by attracting new visitors to their farm stand, located roughly 10 minutes from the College Hill campus.

"The universities are invaluable for our farm because they have a lot of people eating there, and they want to know where the food comes from so they can buy it," Bouthillette said. "I have had college staff and parents of students come in and shop that have never been here before."

As another way to engage the campus community in supporting local agriculture, Brown Dining Services also organizes events throughout the year, including Apple Fest and an Eat Local Challenge, where an entrée in the Sharpe Refectory is 100% locally sourced. Dining also has plans to introduce a farmer's market later in the spring semester. Students have also organized a campus-based food distribution program named Brown Market Shares to enable faculty, staff and students to purchase weekly shares of local produce from regional farms. 

Meaningful, long-lasting relationships

Providence-based Seven Stars Bakery delivers freshly baked bread to Brown's campus daily but Brown's culinary team also orders fresh Italian bread and rolls from Lincoln, R.I., company Calise and Sons Bakery and features European-style pastries in the Blue Room and other campus cafes from Pain D'Avignon in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Rhode Island’s Wayland Bakery (which recently closed a retail location but still serves as a supplier) creates a special pizza dough for the University offered exclusively in Andrews Dining Hall.

Wayland Bakery isn't the only local vendor that customizes orders for Brown — Providence-based New Harvest Coffee Roasters creates a special cold brew and customizes roast levels for Brown. The custom orders, Barboza said, speak to the meaningful and lasting relationships that Brown has established with local food producers.

"We worked with Wayland Bakery to create that dough, and it's a signature product just for Brown — those are the kind of partnerships you can build when you're working with local companies," he said.

Rhode Island companies like New Harvest equally value their partnerships with Brown. The company delivers approximately 70,000 pounds of coffee each year to stock the entire College Hill campus, making the University its third-largest client. Local bakeries, cafés and restaurants also order from New Harvest, but owner Rik Kleinfeldt sees large wholesale clients like Brown as instrumental to the company's recent growth. In 2021, New Harvest moved from its Pawtucket site to a larger storefront and facility in Providence on Sims Avenue, which also serves as headquarters for Farm Fresh Rhode Island and other food businesses.

"The whole Sims Avenue facility was enabled partly by Brown, and it was a huge step for us," Kleinfeldt said. "We were located in an old mill, and it was time for us to move and having Brown on board made it possible."

Having experienced similar success and growth, Narragansett Creamery shares the sentiment.

“When you have a partner like Brown, you can count on that business,” Federico said. “The steady flow of orders means you can hire people to run that machine, that they have jobs, that we have cash flow and that our production is anchored. Brown gives us confidence to grow our business.”