The Farm to Institution Forum: Advancing Access to Local Foods workshop stood out among the plentiful list of inspiring and informative discussions during these years Winter Conference. The forum kicked off with an informational presentation providing hard numbers behind the demand for local produce and eggs by local Vermont Institutions. NOFA’s study showed that over 70% of institutions purchase local fruit and vegetables, and want to purchase more. This research also showed that institutions would rather purchase from their primary distributors or directly from the farmer, which provided a perfect transition into the discussion about to take place.
The open floor, discussion based forum got down to the nitty gritty of the Farm to Plate program and addressed how we may bridge the gap between local farms and large institutions. The fishbowl panel of speakers, prompted opinions from institution reps, local and large-scale farmers, distribution agencies, and a number of sit in attendees, providing a wealth of perspectives. One of the biggest points made by Paul, a local farmer panelist member, explained that local farmers couldn’t compete with the low prices of large scale producers. The representative from a school institution responded that he would rather purchase locally for higher quality and longer lasting food, despite the higher price. It was surprising but refreshing to hear such a large institution advocate for purchasing local food throughout the entire workshop. The question still remained; how does this sector cultivate direct relationships with farmers and institutions?
A representative from Upper Valley Produce remarked, “they should be putting pictures of local farmers up on the walls in school cafeterias!” While this may have evoked laughter among the diverse audience members, she certainly had a point. Maybe institutions would be more likely to buy local if the distribution process was more transparent, and consumers were more connected to their food. The discussion element of this workshop revealed just how essential it is to bring the multiple members from all sides of distribution together in one room. The fishbowl discussion allowed opinions from panelist NOFA members as well as attendees in the workshop, which promoted a diversity of topics and discussion throughout. The three hours spent juggling costs and benefits will surely help reach their goal of 10% Farm to Plate distribution by 2020.
Guest blogger: Laura Friedland