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September 12, 2013

UVM Drops Rookie's Root Beer as Not 'Real' Enough for Real Food Challenge

4312_80295988987_5357015_nSometimes, locavorism can almost seem like hysteria. And sometimes, it's just plain confusing — as in the case of the recent drop of Rookie's Root Beer from the University of Vermont's dining options.

Burlington-brewed Rookie's is no longer on tap at Brennan's, UVM's "local and organic dining destination," where a wall map lists the various farms and producers that populate the menu. Why? 

"Rookie's Root Beer is a local, Vermont company, but to be considered local by Real Food Challenge standards, products must include at least 50 percent local ingredients," writes Caylin McKee, UVM's dining sustainability and social media coordinator, in an email.

In March 2012, UVM became one of the first schools to commit to the Real Food Challenge, a national campaign to shift $1 billion in higher-ed food expenditures to local, "real" options by 2020 — that means foods that are "local, ecologically sound, humane and/or fair," as McKee writes. 

"Because of the nature of Rookie's product, the main ingredient being sugar, they do not meet the 50 percent requirement," she adds.

Students who miss Rookie's have other soda choices, though: Brennan's' self-serve soda fountain, adorned with a Coca-Cola emblem, dispenses three sodas from Maine Root — including a root beer, which inexplicably does meet the criteria — as well as Coke, which provides the dispenser and allows for three other non-Coke products to be served from its taps.

"I was told, you're not considered 'real food,'" says Dave Rooke, Rookie's Root Beer founder. "I asked, 'How don't we qualify? But I was told, 'It's really complicated."

The reasons do sound complicated, or at least tangled. When Maine Root, which is also sweetened with organic sugar, was introduced to Brennan's last fall, "[Rookie's] numbers went down," says Melissa Zelazny, general manager for UVM dining services. "We went to a self-service model, and based on volume, Maine Root was doing well. We decided to concentrate on their drinks." (Rookie's is only offered in kegs, and not via bottles or in a way compatible with a self-dispenser).

Yet despite those sagging numbers, the university still made an effort to keep serving Rookie's based on the company's water usage. "We even looked into the 'local' definition [via the Real Food Challenge] further to see if Rookie's could count as 'real' based on their water being local," writes McKee.

The response from Real Food Challenge to McKee: "At this time, we're not going to count water as a local or real ingredient. It's just too tricky, and we haven't made a thoroughly researched organizational decision."

Adding to the confusion: For 10 years, until June 2012, UVM had a corporate sponsorship contract with Coca-Cola that gave that company "near exclusive marketing and pouring rights," according to UVM's website. When that contract ended, the school had the freedom to bring in other beverages provided through Sodexo, UVM dining's parent company.

Rookie's Root Beer has something of a cult following in Vermont and is on 36 taps statewide. Yet Rooke still sounds particularly crestfallen about this loss. "I thought it was a good relationship. It's difficult for small business to understand the way of big business," he says.

Yet it's not all bitter news for Rooke this summer: Rookie's Root Beer was picked up by Middlebury College last week, and is now on tap in its Crossroads Café.

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