Farm to college to table

A worker handles frozen high-end "wagyū" beef, sold through Washington State University. Source: NY Times.

A worker handles frozen high-end “wagyū” beef, sold through Washington State University. Source: NY Times.

Today’s New York Times had an interesting piece, “A University Steak to Go With That Sweatshirt?,” which explored the branding of colleges, and how it is inching into the realm of urban ag.While some colleges and universities have long had CSAs and worked farmers’ markets, there are some new gambits in branding.

…in recent years, food researchers said, a number of trends have coalesced, changing the stakes, and the possibilities, for what a college food brand might be…

The movement for locally sourced food has fueled a growth in student-led agriculture with new or expanded farm-to-table product lines in places like the urban gardens at George Washington University and the Sustainable Student Farm at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Student-run farms supplying dining halls and farmers’ markets have started or expanded at many institutions, including the University of California’s campuses in Davis and Chico. At the same time, the commercial branding of commodities has become an industry norm, from Washington State apples to California avocados.

“Schools are looking for new ways to generate revenue, but there is more entrepreneurial thinking in colleges and universities than ever before, too,” said Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell and the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

Professor Wansink has studied what he calls “food halos.” That is the aura or glow that a compelling story or some connotation of health, social consciousness or environmentalism can bestow on a product. Colleges, he said, with nostalgic allegiances going back generations and educational missions that go beyond the profit motive, can often grab halos while only half trying.

“Anything like a university brand meat has an incredible halo,” he said.

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