Increasing Local Food Procurement through Farm to Institution

Maggie Reeger, FaHN VISTA, spoke with Glenda Neff, an individual FaHN Sponsor and co-coordinator of Farm to Institution NYS (FINYS), to learn more about her efforts to increase local food procurement throughout New York State.

On her work with local food and agriculture:
Glenda’s interest in food and agriculture began during childhood. She has always felt strongly about food justice, and even as a child, “I had this feeling that people should never have to go hungry.” Through the 1970s, Glenda was part of a food co-op start-up in Syracuse and befriended local farmers. For a few years, she volunteered by helping farmers with marketing their products, and she started a workplace CSA at her publishing job. By 1997, she decided to leave her day job and make a living by working with farms and food organizations. “Everyone has a right to good food. That’s been my motivation. By becoming friends with farmers, I learned that farmers should be able to make a good living.”

And yet, many farmers struggle to get good prices and reliable markets for their products. Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) began when American Farmland Trust brought together a diverse group of leaders in agriculture, economic development, and public health to look at what was needed to increase purchasing of New York-grown and raised foods by schools, colleges, hospitals and smaller settings like daycare, senior meals, and group homes.

To support farmers, FINYS provides market readiness training. Cornell Cooperative Extension and other grower organizations will offer workshops to farmers about business management, food safety, and other quality assurance measures that are necessary for selling to institutions. FINYS also coordinates communication across diverse sectors in New York State to push local food policies forward. “Our current action alert is to build support for an incentive for K-12 school districts to receive extra funding to purchase food from New York farmers.” Sign up for updates to stay on top of food policy in New York State.

Successes of FINYS and current/upcoming initiatives:
An early major success of FINYS was the passage of the New York State Food Metrics Bill. “It requires state agencies to track and report the amount of New York State grown food they’re purchasing—this includes SUNY, hospitals, prisons—all procurement by State agencies. American Farmland Trust/FINYS helped draft this legislation and organized the effort that resulted in Governor Cuomo signing it.”

Another FINYS program is Farm to SUNY, which is a pilot project to increase local food purchasing. FINYS works to connect farmers with profitable market opportunities at universities. The project started at a few SUNY schools throughout the state and will extend to the whole SUNY system to bring more New York grown food into university dining halls.

Strategies for successful Farm to Institution Programs:
“Farm to Institution must be addressed from multiple fronts, simultaneously. This includes building education and awareness among students and adults—the eaters—and learning to eat New York State grown foods that are health promoting. It’s a behavior change. On the procurement side, it’s about what is being served on the menu and what the dining services are purchasing. And the final step is the community that surrounds the institution.”

A cohort of partners must actively support a Farm to School team. This includes the Food Service Director and staff, the school principal, students, parents, teachers, and the Board of Education. “Every partner sees the value from their point of view. Building a team is one of the first steps. Once you get the principal or Board of Education involved, you can include Farm to School in a wellness policy committee.”

“On the college side, policy can be part of sustainability goals and programs. Most colleges have sustainability commitments that measure the amount of energy used by dining services.” Such measurements not only involve food preparation, but food miles can also be taken into account. Implementing Farm to Institution programs can be an effective way for colleges to meet their sustainability goals.

On the growth and evolution of farm to institution:
Two big trends have changed Farm to Institution in the past decade:

  • Public health: “The buy local campaign has been strong since 2000, at least. What has grown is the push to offer healthier good tasting foods to change peoples’ eating choices. Farm to Institution can be a strategy in how we prevent chronic disease and address public health issues.” Involvement in community or school gardens, and being able to eat food you’ve grown yourself, can lead to behavior changes that promote positive health.
  • Access: “It used to be that if you were hungry, you were simply given enough food to feel full. Calories were more important than eating nutritious food.” In conjunction with a “buy local” attitude, Glenda sees a shift toward a belief in healthy food access for everyone. And yet, “Many people need help getting access to that. Group settings for the public—schools, Meals on Wheels—these are programs that are strengthened through Farm to Institution.” Efforts surrounding Farm to Institution have been successfully growing due to a changing mindset that stresses the belief in healthy food for all.

Community involvement in farm to institution efforts:
The most important aspect of Farm to Institution is building a team of dedicated people. “Most projects start with a few people who want to make a change. Finding other like-minded people that round out the team and come from different angles is essential.”

Already developed projects need volunteers, too—FINYS offers resources to connect community members with their local Farm to Institution programs. The FINYS website showcases different projects around the state, and there’s a “Find Your Partners” page broken down by region. Visit FINYS on Facebook and Twitter.

Taking action through food policy and advocacy:
“Policy starts with educating ourselves, friends, and neighbors. Then we’re ready to take action when the time comes to support a piece of legislation, write a letter, make a phone call to a school board member or our representatives. We’re ready to write an op-ed.”

FINYS urges community members and organizations to write letters and op-eds to show support, and use your social media to spread the word. Most importantly, “Pay attention to the issues that are keeping us from having good food.”

On being a FaHN sponsor:
Glenda has lived next door to the FaHN region for a number of years, in Cayuga County. She became familiar with FaHN through her work with Ray Denniston, a longtime FaHN member and Farm to School colleague.

“I see FaHN as a great model for regional collaboration. That’s why I support it and became a sponsor. FaHN has been fostering communication and partnerships throughout its region. And of course, the challenge is to raise funds and have resources for staff, interns, and AmeriCorps members. This type of work can’t be done by trying to fit it into everything else. There must be dedicated staff and resources.”