Farm to Institution: Mainstreaming Local Foods

Feature Stories Spring 2016 Issue

Farm to Institution: Mainstreaming Local Foods

By Wendy Allen | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

It may surprise you—as it did me— to discover how broad the concept of “farm to institution” truly is. Farm to institution includes farm to school (defined as early childhood through high school), the most recognized of the programs, as well as areas we don’t often think of: businesses, hospitals, universities and prisons (and one day, hopefully, the military). Plus, it’s not simply about procuring local foods. Possibly the most influential pieces are the tendrils reaching out from that farmto- kitchen connection that educate and inspire the people involved: CSA drop-off sites at businesses. Health insurance companies that provide CSA membership rebates. On-site gardens and orchards. “Chefs in the Classroom” and nutrition education.

Institutional kitchens have the potential to make huge economic impacts for local foods in our state, and any state.

We’re already seeing exciting impacts from farm to school in Southwest Wisconsin and nationally. The concept has been informally implemented since the 1990s, but purchasing directly from farms was—and still is—cumbersome: the farm must be an approved vendor meeting strict food safety standards, and there’s Paperwork, with a capital P. It takes a dedicated foodservice director to jump through the hoops of sourcing directly from a farm.

Today, the non-profit National Farm to School Network is a unifying force and resource nationwide, with regional and state representatives on the ground in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to support farm to school activities and advocacy. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 upped the momentum by overhauling the school meal nutritional regulations that schools must follow and establishing a national Farm to School Program within the USDA.

Between the National Farm to School Network, the USDA and hundreds of partner organizations around the country, there is now grant money, national education and outreach, tools to help schools navigate the process of procuring local food, and training resources for foodservice staff, who— through no fault of their own—are often limited by lack of equipment or basic culinary skills. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) helped support the education effort in 2015 by producing six free culinary skills training videos for school foodservice staff. Thanks to this network, farm to school is today the best supported of all institutional local food activities and has the most research and data behind it.

The USDA recently released preliminary findings for its 2015 Farm to School Census, which were decidedly encouraging. 42,172 schools participated in some form of farm to school programming (235 districts in Wisconsin), and schools invested $598 million in their local food communities—55 percent more than in 2013. If businesses, hospitals and military bases also began regularly sourcing locally on this scale, it would create exciting opportunities for existing farms to expand, as well as allow new farms to have a place in the market from day one.

While the multifaceted impact of sourcing large volumes of local food can be great, so too can the impact of wasted food from these kitchens that serve hundreds or thousands of people a day. The topic of food waste has gained more attention and action in recent years since a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) revealed that 40 percent of the American food supply ends up rotting in landfills and contributing to methane emissions. Institutional kitchens contribute significant quantities to this number.

“It’s not uncommon for foodservice providers to have to throw away 25 percent of the food they get off the distributor truck because it came from so far away,” says Vanessa Herald, farm to school outreach specialist with CIAS. In addition, students (and let’s face it, adults, too) throw away more food when they don’t know what it is or when it doesn’t look, smell or taste good. Who can blame them? The heat-and-serve norm can look pretty unappetizing, even for something as kid-friendly as pizza.

Happily, the Farm to School Census reports that schools with farm to school programs experience less food waste. Foodservice staff throw away less food from their orders, and the local food stays fresh longer, giving them more time to use it. With these cost savings and the additional income from more students choosing the new fresh, appealing school lunches, schools have been able to steadily increase their local purchases.

In other foodservice settings, four to ten percent of food becomes waste before it even reaches the consumer, and in hospitals, which can create trash on the level of tons per day, food waste can make up 10 to 15 percent of their total waste. Reshaping how foodservice programs source their food could make an influential dent in that number.

Hippocrates provided the famous mantra “do no harm” that doctors operate by today; but he also said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” As type one diabetes and obesity rates reach unprecedented heights and the cost of healthcare for these populations increases proportionately, many hospitals are finally taking action to revamp their menus, closing the disconnect between the meal tray and doctor’s orders. In addition, hospitals around the country are opting out of meat produced with antibiotics as a step toward preventing the development of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs." Food as medicine is more important now than ever.

Watertown Regional Medical Center’s Harvest Market sources many of its ingredients from its 11,000 square foot on-site garden, and recipes align with what the hospital’s nutritionists would recommend to patients. The café is also open to the public as a service to, and investment in, their community’s health. Other hospitals in our region that source locally include Sauk Prairie Healthcare, Upland Hills Health, UWHealth, American Family Children’s Hospital, Agrace Hospicecare, Meriter Hospital, and St. Mary’s Hospital.

On the business side, Epic Systems in Verona has received lots of recognition for being a positive influence on its local food community through its oncampus cafés, serving nutritious, affordable meals to thousands of employees every day, and donating leftovers to those in need (read more about Epic here).

When the farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley chose to build its headquarters in La Farge, Wis. (pop. 750), 45 minutes south of Interstate 90 and 30 minutes from any other towns of significant size, it decided it had a responsibility to provide an organic lunch option to its employees who worked in this rural location. Today, Organic Valley’s cafés at its two office locations—La Farge and Cashton—source all their dairy and meat from the co-op’s own regional organic farms. In addition, their offices are CSA drop-off sites, have large employee gardens, and the company’s health insurance provider, Health Traditions, offers CSA membership rebates to encourage healthy eating as preventative care.

The chefs of Bon Appétit Management Company, an “on-site restaurant company” serving institutions nationwide, have been sourcing locally since the 1990s. In 1999, the company solidified its commitment with its Farm to Fork program, which requires Bon Appétit chefs to purchase at least 20 percent of their ingredients from small, owner-operated farms and ranches within 150 miles of their kitchens. Each year, the company’s 650 cafés in 33 states spend millions of dollars on local foods.

Michael Downey, Bon Appétit executive chef at Beloit College, sourced from 12 local farms and suppliers in 2015, including yogurt from Sugar River Dairy in Albany, milk and cheese curds from Red Barn Family Farms in Fox Valley, and chicken and beef from Ney’s Big Sky Ranch in Slinger. Michael says Beloit College’s local sourcing annual average came in around 24 to 25 percent last year, compared to a mere six percent in 2012, the school’s first year with Bon Appétit.

“Some farmers have expressed doubt that a corporation as large as we are can be walking our talk when it comes to our Farm to Fork commitment and other sustainability practices,” says Michael, “but they usually come around quickly to the idea that we are here to support them and help them grow. We have built a network of over 1,400 Farm to Fork vendors nationwide.”

The process of working with processors and distributors is often uncharted territory for farmers who are used to selling directly to consumers at farmers markets, says Sarah Elliot, farm to school program director for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. “It can be a big leap.”

For example, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, a voluntary food safety audit for produce, can be challenging and extremely confusing—there’s no requirement for GAP at the federal and state level, but more and more institutions are requiring it. There have also been miscommunications that result in stressful situations in the moment but which are amusing in hindsight, such as the farmer who delivered a couple hundred pounds of loose potatoes to a school that was expecting them boxed.

“I overcome those challenges here at Beloit [College] by being honest and upfront about what I’m looking for, what I’m guaranteeing that I will purchase, and what I can pay,” says Michael. “Communication is key.” Honesty and respect also ensure that if a partnership doesn’t work out today, it can be rekindled in the future.

For the farms that take the time to cross the real barriers of certification, paperwork, and supply, and the perceived barrier of the general unknown, it can change their futures. Institutions “purchase in high volumes, and they’re super consistent,” says Sarah. “That’s a huge benefit for farmers and provides a lot of security.”

Vermont Valley Community Farm supplies slightly imperfect but perfectly edible produce to Mount Horeb School District’s salad bar, reducing the food wasted from the farm, and Crossroads Community Farm supplies carrots throughout the winter. The school also sources from other local farms and businesses such as Lonesome Stone Milling (Lone Rock), Gentle Breeze Honey (Mount Horeb), Munchkey Apples (Mount Horeb), and others.

This devoted team collaborates with local farmers to feed hundreds of children at five campuses in the Mount Horeb School District every day.


Mount Horeb School District Food Service Director Michelle Denk says, “[Local food] is much more available now than it used to be. We incorporate local produce and other items on our menus all of the time, and it isn't necessarily a ‘special’ thing anymore. It just seems like common sense.”

For the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), which consists of 50 schools, it may seem like common sense, but it hasn’t been easy. MMSD is limited in its ability to cook from scratch and by its budget, and it takes time to build the infrastructure needed to source local foods for such a large network of schools. But that’s not stopping them. To begin turning the ship, in 2014 REAP Food Group and MMSD created the MMSD Farm to School Project. Together, they work to provide local foods and farm to school education to more than 25,000 elementary, middle and high school students. In the 2014-15 school year, MMSD and REAP reported serving 54,000 pounds—27 tons!—of locally sourced produce through “Wisconsin Wednesday” lunches, garden bars and featured ingredients, and through the REAP Snack Program, which prepares fruit and veggie snacks at the FEED Kitchens and delivers them once a week to 13 elementary schools. REAP also coordinates Chef in the Classroom events at Sherman and East high schools and a team of AmeriCorps members who lead elementary farm to school activities, all providing supportive education, says REAP, “to inspire young people to eat adventurously and thoughtfully.”

The farm to school sourcing-plus-education model can be duplicated at any institution, with any age group. Pull employees away from meetings and computer screens with day trips to local farms. Coordinate CSA volunteer days if the business is host to a CSA pick-up site. Start an employee garden or orchard. Choose a health insurance provider that offers CSA and wellness rebates. Bring farmers markets or a farm stand to a business, hospital or university campus.

What’s next for this movement? If we’re going to serve more institutional kitchens, then we’ll need more farms, for one thing, and a more robust infrastructure to serve both sides. These are exciting opportunities for farmers and food artisans as well as for entrepreneurs—the time is ripe for devising creative and sustainable local infrastructure models to economically connect farms to the kitchens.

Tens of millions of Americans, from toddlers to adults, benefit from farm to cafeteria activities daily, and the movement is changing the conversation about food in this country, says Anupama Joshi, executive director of the National Farm to School Network. “The rapid growth of this work across the nation in the last decade is proof that when communities come together, great things can happen. Looking ahead, stronger policy and systemslevel change will lead us toward institutionalization of these strategies in our schools and our economy, leading toward a healthier normal for our children, farmers and communities."

Farm to institution is an experience beyond simply eating a local apple in a cafeteria, and the impacts go beyond the tangible pounds of food sold and dollars sent back into the local economy. It’s also about creating community relationships and showing the next generation that where food comes from matters—to the farmer, to the planet, and to our health.

Wendy Allen is digital editor, copy editor, and a writer for Edible Madison. She reads style guides for fun, believes stories have power, and is fascinated by the evolution of the English languageā€”for better or worse. Her mission: to wrestle the wily comma into submission.

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