Farm to Institution: Introduction

People value food produced locally through direct relationship with farmers — this extends to the realm of institutional decisions, too. From school and hospital cafeterias to restaurants and businesses, consumers are going local in a big way.

With the growing trend toward locally-sourced food, families and individuals aren’t the only ones fueling the local food economy. Buying directly from farmers is a growing business as schools, universities, hospitals and institutions are sourcing ingredients from fields and farms in their area. It’s no wonder why: apart from the fresh, high-quality choices that buying local brings, this model also provides important benefits for farmers and strengthens local economies.

New Partnerships, Direct Relationships

Farm to institution programs forge new partnerships between producers and community institutions. For some farmers, this has completely shifted the way they do business as institutional partners offer more opportunities than conventional markets with highly centralized distribution structures. A great model for mid-sized farms particularly, institutional markets can provide a better return for farmers than wholesale markets, while demanding a larger volume than the scale of farmers’ markets can fill. Which translates into more dollars in farmers’ pockets. Many state and local governments now incorporate local food purchasing policies into development strategies to support farmers and the local economy. See Policy & Advocacy for examples.

In some cases, national distributors and major food service providers have stepped up in response to this demand for local food. It’s often beyond the current scope of large-scale food service providers to identify local farmers, seek them out and create working contracts, but this is where local networks come in. Community groups with a deep commitment to local food and connections to producers help navigate these links and lay the groundwork with farmers and institutions to develop relationships — some, in part due to assistance from USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grants.

As producers and institutions forge the way on this path, they continue to fill gaps to ensure the process runs smoothly. Not all farms are equipped to transport food directly to institutions, and some smaller farms have difficulty meeting the costs for certification, liability and packing specifications required on behalf of institutions. On the other end, not all institutional customers have the refrigeration capacity necessary to keep produce fresh. As local food networks continue to grow, these infrastructure gaps are narrowing and more autonomy has shifted to local and regional actors in developing solutions. See case studies and learn how people are innovating along the local food chain.

What’s on Your Tray? Real Food hits the Lunchroom

Schools are successfully integrating this model across the country and around the world with the help of local leaders, farmers, dedicated parents, school educators and administrators. Farm to School programs have seen tremendous growth in recent years.

The number of schools participating in farm to school programs in the U.S. jumped from 400 in 2004 to 2,300 in 2011.

But schools aren’t just serving up local food. They’re growing it, talking about it in classrooms, and learning about it from the ground up. Nutrition education and food literacy play a large role in the success of Farm to School partnerships. Along with hands-on learning in school gardens, visits with farmers in the classroom and on-farm field trips, integrated curriculum and lesson plans, students are discovering where and how fruits and vegetables are grown and why they need them to grow strong, healthy bodies and minds. (Which means they eat more of them, too.) Many schools now leverage a geographic preference for locally-grown or raised products in purchasing practices.

The local-food fever is a global movement with many interesting experiments and leaders to learn from. For example, the city of Rome, Italy, completely overhauled the school meal service for its 140,000 students and hasn’t looked back. Ingredients for all school meals are seasonal, organic, regionally and/or fair trade-produced, and cooked from scratch in school kitchens. See Innovation in Rome’s School Meal System.

On the university level, organized students are often the main actors calling for change, and Real Food Challenge can point to hard earned success on this front. The non-profit organization builds partnerships with students and administration to shift institutional purchasing to real food. Nearly $50 million worth of university institutional spending since 2008 is now going toward locally sourced, fairly grown food that truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth. By 2020, RFC aims to count $1 billion in pledges to make real food a priority in university budgets.

Hospital purchasing is also shifting the tide to more direct sourcing, but not at the pace many public health advocates would like. Although hospitals are in the business of protecting health, many still have fast food restaurants on site and are tied into long-term food service contracts that are difficult and costly to break. As of yet, farmers haven’t been able to access this market in a significant way. But as these contracts expire, more and more hospitals are using their purchasing power to shift to healthy, sustainable, local food menus. Committed institutions are also leading the way forward by example, like Fletcher Allen in Vermont, serving up fresh, organic meals as one of the first hospitals in the country to sign the “Healthy Food in Health Care ” pledge.

Localizing Decisions and Relationships

With deep commitment on behalf of farmers, policy-makers, administrators and consumers, this vision – and the market – for food that is healthy, fresh and local is growing rapidly. These relationships reconnect us to our food system, to fresh and nourishing meals that continue to bring us closer to our food and farmers. The potential for sustained growth is a powerful invitation to continue laying the groundwork and investing in regional food infrastructure while building the political will to re-localize the decision-making and economy of our food systems.

For resources on bringing this model to your community, see Links & Resources for more regional resources, topic-specific webinars, and how to guides from those who’ve done it.

Updated 4/2014