On Tuesday, October 14, farmers, institutional representatives, distributors, processors, and nonprofits came together for a conference dedicated to moving more local food into institutions. The goal of the conference was to connect the various stakeholders in the institutional food system and reach a common understanding—or at least recognition—of individual goals. Unlike other similar conferences, this included a case study of a new pilot project, Mainstreaming, that is working to connect more farmers to institutions through the big, broadline distributors. The project provided a new angle on farm to institution strategies, and helped to frame the days’ discussions and breakout sessions by stressing the need for each stakeholder in the farm to institution value chain to trust one another and work together to reduce risk.
The concept of farm to institution has been gaining momentum in recent years, thanks largely to a rise consumer demand for local food. Consumers are increasingly becoming aware that eating local food benefits environment, community, and health. And, since many Americans eat at least one meal each day in an institution—in colleges, hospitals, corporate cafeterias, etc—that consumer demand is catching the attention of institutions and food service corporations, and in turn, major food distributors.
Still, farm to institution models are emerging gradually. Despite the increase in demand, many institutions, and especially those that contract with food service companies and broadline distributors, have been slow to significantly change buying practices. As it is, the current system works well for the institutions and distributors who need to pay careful attention to price, and seek dependable, large volume suppliers. At the same time, local farmers have been slow to scale up to a level that can adequately supply institutions. However as direct sales markets become saturated, farmers are considering larger, wholesale markets.
For farmers, selling wholesale to an institution creates a series of trade-offs. Direct-to-consumer marketing can take an enormous amount of time and effort, but often fetches a premium price. Scaling up to sell wholesale can be simpler, but it doesn’t mean receiving the same price for the same goods: the more you sell, the cheaper it will be. Additionally, most distributors require farms to have big insurance policies and some form of certification to cover food safety concerns, all of which can be expensive.
One panelist, Ted Sparrow, of Sparrow Farm, suggested finding a niche—cultivating a few products that no one else is growing. He grows leeks, celery, ginger, and kale; focusing only on four crops allows him to grow a lot of each, but also provides some diversity to mitigate the risk of monoculture. Similarly, Marada Cook from Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative noted that more farms need to fill specific niches, such as asparagus, strawberries, and tree fruit other than apples—crops that are in demand, but that no one is growing.
Farmer cooperatives might find it easier to sell to a distributor, aggregating product to help mitigate risk, while ensuring that each item can be traced back to the individual farm. Traceability is essential to both marketing and food safety, and it’s important not to lose the identity and integrity of a local producer when entering the mainstream system. Overall, farmers need to be aware of the needs of distributors: consistent, uniform, and clean product, food safety standards, and clear labeling.
If distributors want to by from local producers, they will need to employ more flexible standards. Local product might be more expensive, but it has a longer shelf life, and is cheaper to ship than vegetables from California sent by freight. Distributors need to be able to make commitments to farmers: if the farmer plants a specific product for a distributor, he or she needs to know that they’ll buy it come harvest time. More transparency would also enhance the relationship. On the “Scaling Up” panel, farmer Sarah Redfield and Patrick Ward of Curran Company role-played a mock negotiation. That honest negotiation of price was helpful for both the farmers and distributors in the room, who need more price transparency to better judge if farm to institution could make sense for their businesses.
Institutions who are interested in using local foods should also form more deliberate relationships with farmers. In the “Institutional Realities and Opportunities” panel, institutional representatives noted that they learn much more about the needs of the farmer by having a personal relationship with their producers, and that that relationship also helps the institution be part of the local community. Broadline distributors are certainly the easiest source of food, but a single supply chain doesn’t allow institutions to build relationships with producers.
More flexibility is also important in the kitchen. Food service staff may have to do more food preparation, which can mean higher labor costs, more kitchen space, and more refrigeration and storage facilities. Menus, which are frequently created months in advance, should leave more room for product variability—for example, specifying “roasted root vegetables” instead of “roasted carrots” to allow for last minute changes if need be.
Throughout the conference, it was clear that there are still a number of challenges to overcome. Everyone in the value chain is trying to minimize costs, which leaves little room for other criteria. There’s still a lack of local infrastructure, like processing facilities, which could help increase the flow of product to distributors. We are trying to have it all: more volume, fair prices that can support economic growth for all parties, not to mention good, safe food, and it’s not easy to make it all pencil out for each stakeholder.
In sum, if we want change, each stakeholder must become more aware of the needs of the others. Increased transparency establishes trust, which makes everyone a little more willing to take the necessary risks. Although the conversation certainly isn’t over, Mainstreaming Local was a successful next step in the right direction.
Mainstreaming Local was organized by: Riley Neugebauer of Farm to Institution New England; Ellen Sabina of Maine Farmland Trust, and Kurt Shisler, Mainstreaming Project. Held at Colby College, the event was sponsored by Colby, Sodexo, Performance Food Group, Health Care Without Harm, Maine Farmland Trust, FINE, and MOFGA.