Farm-to-institution programs could save small farmers
November 22, 2006
• Potentially huge market
• Could encourage sustainable agriculture
Say goodbye to wisecracks about lousy cafeteria food and get ready for more salad bars and fresh produce in schools, universities, and hospitals.
That's the vision behind a two-year study of the feasibility of "farm-to-institution" programs being launched this month by researchers at the University of California's Santa Cruz and Davis campuses.
"These programs could be a lifeline for small- to mid-scale farmers struggling to stay afloat, and would improve the eating habits of millions of Americans, from young schoolchildren to elderly hospital patients," says project director Patricia Allen, associate director of the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.
If institutional food buyers embrace sustainably produced goods, including organic and fair-trade edibles, the environmental gains could be enormous, says Ms. Allen. "Due to the size of the institutional food market, farm-to-institution programs could catalyze a fundamental transformation in the way the nation produces and distributes food," she says.
The project is the first large-scale assessment of the nation's appetite for food-to-institution programs. It encompasses a national survey of college students' food preferences, a survey of the priorities of institutional food buyers in California, and an evaluation of distribution models that could be developed to get more fresh, locally grown food into institutions, including schools, universities, and hospitals.
“Very little is known about the distribution of local produce from small and mid-sized farms to institutions," says Gail Feenstra, food systems analyst with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.
"We want to find out what works and share this information with the farmers,” she says. “They're the ones who are disappearing from the landscape the fastest, and we believe they're the ones best positioned to take advantage of the institutional markets we are targeting."
On the farm side, researchers will assess the potential profitability of farm-to-institution programs, explore ways that farmers can tap these markets, and identify mechanisms to ease food distribution so institutions can meet their food demands without having to contract individually with multiple growers.
Americans spent nearly $5 billion on food expenditures away from home in 2004, and institutions capture a quarter of this market, says Ms. Allen. In California, more than 21,000 education and health care institutions provide meals daily.
"The institutional foods market has been largely untapped by small- and mid-sized farmers," Ms. Allen says. "If institutional contracts incorporate sustainability criteria, a huge market could be transformed with an incentive-based approach, rather than through regulation."
Such criteria could include wage and benefits requirements for food-system workers and reducing the use of toxic pesticides, she says.
The two-year project is being funded by a $400,000 grant from the National Research Initiative of the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.