How Food Laws Impact “Buying Local” at New England Institutions

Peter Allison, Executive Director

By Peter Allison, Executive Director, Farm to Institution New England, 802-291-2019

And Sophia Kruszewski, Clinic Director and Assistant Professor, Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School  

All six New England states have some form of policy encouraging or requiring that institutions purchase local food products. Yet the laws differ from state to state, and in many cases, aren’t particularly effective. These are the findings outlined in a newly released report from Farm to Institution New England (FINE) and the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) at Vermont Law School entitled Regional Trends in New England Farm to Institution Procurement Policy.

This research investigated food laws and policies that affect local food purchasing by public institutions, which are playing an increasingly significant role in the movement for healthy, sustainable, and regionally produced food. Institutions like universities, primary schools, hospitals, and correctional facilities purchase large quantities of food for their cafeterias. Those that are funded with taxpayer dollars must adhere to strict purchasing regulations intended to promote fair competition for bids and utilize public dollars wisely. An unintended consequence of these regulations is that smaller local farmers and fishermen often struggle to compete in a process that favors large volume contracts at the lowest price. And so, New England states have also enacted a variety of policies in an attempt to encourage institutional purchasing of local food. This report provides an overview of those laws across New England.

This research has identified a few key trends in the region: 

  • Since the term “local food” is not defined at the federal level, each New England state determines its own parameters. 
  • Each New England state has a law or policy establishing a “purchasing preference” for local products. But the language is ambiguous. A purchaser, for example, must use “reasonable efforts” (Massachusetts) to procure local products when “other considerations [are] equal” (Vermont), and “to the extent practicable” (Maine). In the absence of enforcement, it is up to the institution to define its own progress.  
  • Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont allow purchasers to forgo extensive regulatory burden when a purchase is under a certain level (“small purchase threshold”). 
  • Farm to school programs exist in all New England states, with varying levels of government mandate or participation. 
  • In the absence of impactful state law, state agency advocates, institutions, community groups, and local governments are stepping in to advance goals.

Ultimately, the authors recommend that when establishing local food purchasing goals for institutions, states need to set specific metrics, commit to a timeline, and allocate resources to track progress.

“This overview of New England food policy is incredibly valuable to those of us working to advance these issues in the legislature,” comments Josh Marshall of the New Hampshire Farm Bureau. “It also reveals that while each state has made a concerted attempt, there is so much more we can do to incentivize local food in our institutions.” 

The report’s authors lay out further recommendations for broader education, clarity of definitions, and increased public-private partnerships.  The work conducted with CAFS is part of FINE’s broader commitment to better understanding the institutional food system by collecting and disseminating data through our Metrics Dashboard

"There is a tremendous amount of energy in the New England states around developing public policy to advance farm to school efforts on the ground," said Betsy Rosenbluth, coordinator for the Northeast Farm to School Collaborative and Project Director of Vermont FEED. "These new policy documents will help us learn and build from each other as we move closer toward our goals."   

This report is also accompanied by a set of six policy snapshots that explore each New England state’s laws in detail. In the coming year, FINE and CAFS will catalyze a strong policy working group of state regulators, lawmakers, and advocates, to put these specific recommendations into action.

Download the Report & State Snapshots

This project is funded in part by the National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Additional funding was provided by The John Merck Fund and the Henry P. Kendall Foundation.

About Farm to Institution New England (FINE)

About Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) at Vermont Law School.


Image adapted from congerdesign and Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay