By Shannon Grimes, Maine Farmland Trust

Posted November 3, 2014


Mainstreaming Local Food

Mainstreaming Local Food to Institutions: Tips for Farmers, Distributors & Food Service

By Shannon Grimes, Maine Farmland Trust
Edited by Riley Neugebauer, Farm to Institution New England


On October 14th at Colby College, over one hundred representatives, including farmers, distributors, processors, nonprofits, and institutional foodservice representatives and other staff and students came together for a conference dedicated to moving more local food into institutions. The event was organized by Maine Farmland Trust, FINE and Colby College, with support from Health Care Without HarmPFG/NorthcenterSodexo, and MOFGA.

The conference provided some new insights via the Mainstreaming model, which focuses on connecting farms to institutions in Maine via large broadline distributors – thus far focused on PFG/Northcenter. Some local product (carrots and butternut squash) has already begun moving through these channels in Maine from Lakeside Family Farms and Spear’s Farm through PFG Northcenter to a group of over a dozen college and healthcare facilities. 

How Do Farm to Institution Initiatives Typically Work?

Currently, the 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 and are seeking opportunities to develop these relationships and better understand what is needed.

Farmers Consider Wholesale

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. 

Advice for Farmers from Existing Wholesale Farms, Advocates & Distributors

1. Find Your Niche

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. 

2. Don't Forget Perennials

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. 

3. Consider Joining a Farmer Cooperative

Cooperatives can make it easier to sell to a distributor because it helps to aggregate products and create larger volumes, while hopefully providing a marketing boost as well.

4. Ensure Traceability

This is essential to both marketing and food safety – don’t lose the identity and integrity of your product as it enters a larger food system.  This is also important to the end consumers who want to know where their food comes from!  

5. Deliver a Quality Product with Clear Labels 

Overall in order to work with distributors, you will want to be thinking about how to make your products consistent, more uniform, clean, with clear labeling and able to meet food safety standards!

Advice for Distributors from Farmers & Advocates

1. Make Commitments to the Farmers (but not necessarily via a contract)

If the farmer plants a specific product for a distributor, he or she needs to know that they’ll buy it come harvest time, and needs time to plan for this.  Some would prefer contracts, while others would be fine with a different type of agreement that is more informal.

2. Employ More Flexible Standards

Consider a more flexible approach to insurance requirements based on site visits or other trust built up with the farmer.

3. Consider the Value of Local Product Beyond Price

Local product might be more expensive when compared to California products, but it has a longer shelf life, and travels very few miles from production to consumer which means less greenhouse gas emissions and higher quality. 

4. Increase Transparency

4. Increase Transparency
Make the steps and process, as well as the price range that is of interest, more clear for farmers so that they can become “approved vendors”. 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. 

Advice for Institutional Food Service Reps from Farmers & Advocates

1. Form Direct Partnerships

Where a farm can provide a substantial amount of product to an institution, direct partnerships can make sense and be an important relationship for the foodservice director to further champion and support local foods.  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.

2. Demand More Local Foods Via Contracts

Utilize the system that you are a part of to encourage local foods via preferencing in your contracts with food service management companies and distributors. One college foodservice representative at the event is planning to do this for an upcoming bid process for distributors in order to make it more clear that this is a priority for their campus.  

3. Put Local On the Menu

Menus, which are frequently created months in advance, can leave more room for product variability and seasonality—for example, specifying “roasted root vegetables” instead of “roasted carrots” to allow for last minute changes if need be. The University of Maine has also included Lakeside Family Farm products as a part of their menu and inventory system so there is no question what product to order for specific recipes.  Alternatively, consider moving away from set menu rotations and more towards a seasonal menu based on what is available – and tap into the creativity of your chefs – as they have done at Saint Joseph’s College.  

4. Consider Budget & Capital Planning for the Kitchen that Includes Local

Local foods can require additional labor time for preparing whole and raw foods, and it may also dictate a need for processing equipment, and additional refrigerated or freezer storage. Some costs might be saved in other areas – offering more affordable proteins such as seafood more often; offering more local vegetarian options and meals instead of always serving meat as a center entrée; cutting costs through food waste or going tray-less; etc. Also, consider working with your institution to identify alumni or trustees that might want to support your cause financially by making an investment in the local food system.   

Challenges & Solutions

It is clear from the event that there are still a number of challenges to overcome, and that some solutions are under development to help address them. The focus on cheap food for institutions, and the expectation that local foods should be price competitive with food coming from California in order to be viable can make conversation about other areas of value more difficult. However, institutions have shown that they are committed by paying more for many of these local products, but note that they are limited by price and budget.  There’s still a lack of local infrastructure, like processing facilities, which could help increase the flow of product to distributors. 

Facilities like the Unity Food Hub will further develop and be able to better address some of these problems, along with others that are in development as well. Because we are interested to have more volume, fair prices that can support economic growth for all parties, and good, safe, sustainable food - it’s not easy challenge to overcome and will take ongoing conversations and relationship building for the supply chain, education and awareness for all of the stakeholders and consumers, more farms, more production, and infrastructure development.

Events such as this one help to make each stakeholder more aware of the needs of the others. This increased transparency establishes trust, which in turn makes everyone a little more willing to move closer to a local or regional food system. Mainstreaming Local continued the conversation, and was a successful next step in the right direction.