John Fisk for SCALE - February 3, 2022
Since the 1970s we have been eating our meals away from home more and more. Although food eaten at restaurants account for a large portion of this, many of us also find our way to cafeterias at a variety of institutions such as K-12 schools, higher education institutions, hospitals or other facilities with food service. So much so that many now believe that shifting food procurement practices of public and private institutions to include locally and equitably produced food can bring economic, public health, and environmental benefitsto communities (see for example Policy Link, Equitable Development Toolkit – Local Food Procurement 2015).
The movement to increase local food purchasing in K-12 public schools provides a good example how this shift can result in desired impacts. According to the National Farm to School Network kids eat more and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables through farm to school meals and then subsequently by asking for changes at home. Farmers benefit from an increase in income from farm to school sales, by having of a long-term revenue stream they can build out from, and from market diversification and growth opportunities that stem from success with schools. Communities win through increased public health and positive linkages between schools and communities particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. Communities also realize economic impacts. The 2020 study The Benefits of Farm to School, reported finding that each job created by school districts purchasing local foods led to and another 0.27 – 2.35 jobs, and it was found that each dollar invested stimulates $0.60-$2.16 of additional local activity.
Buffalo Public School (BPS) district’s efforts to source local and equitably raised food has emerged as a nationally recognized program. During the 2019-2020 school year, BPS F2S spent over $2 million, or just over 41% of its lunch expenditures, on produce, dairy, beef, juice, and other NY raised foods. But K-12 schools are just one type of institution, there are also colleges and universities, hospitals and other health care facilities, and corrections facilities. In NYS there are over 270 public and private colleges and universities. The SUNY system alone comprises 64 campuses and serves over 500,000 students and faculty with annual food purchasing budgets of approximately $150,000,000 (see On the Plate at SUNY: Growing Health, Farms and Jobs with Local Food). This same study calculated that if SUNY spent 25% of its food buy on fresh and minimally processed NY grown foods, it would create $54 million in economic output for the state.
Headwater products being picked and packed by Headwaters Fulfillment Team at the Headwater Food Hub in Ontario
Thirteen SUNY campuses, along with dozens of other institutions of higher education, health care and correctional facilities are in located in the nine counties of Western NY that are the focus on the WNY Regional Food System Initiative. Together they represent a major opportunity to redirect the power of procurement toward support for a regional food system that offers opportunity for small and large farms alike, that models racial and other forms of equity in the food system, and supports regional good food values chains that are essential to growing, processing and distributing the quantity and quality of food required by institutional food service.
Fortunately, we have the seeds of these good food value chains in the WNY region. Distributors and food hubs like Brigiotta's Farmland Produce, Eden Valley Growers and Headwater Food Hub among others work closely with local and regional farmers to coordinate supply, open markets, aggregate and distribute products. Headwater has been particularly focused on institutional food service and is committed to sourcing strategies that support a healthful, fair, humane, ecological, inclusive, transparent and resilient food system. Through a hands-on approach, they have worked closely with the University of Rochester and St John Fisher College among others to better understand how to meet the unique needs of university food service while still ensuring viable opportunity for farmers and support for the values of a good food system. Now with additional resources and shifts in procurement policy at the state level linked to pandemic recovery, Headwaters is exploring opportunities with correctional facilities.
There are challenges for local, regional and equitable food suppliers to meet the needs of institutional food service such as price, quantity, seasonality, vendor approval, and more. At the same time pressures to modify procurement policies are growing. For example, the recently proposed S.7534/A.8580 that would revise NYS food procurement policy to encourage public institutions to direct their buying power toward businesses that represent core values, including environmental sustainability, racial equity, fair labor practices and pricing for farmers, local economic benefit, nutrition, and animal welfare. The proposed legislation is informed by The Good Food Purchasing Program, a national program that has partnered with cities across the country to help shift the power of procurement to support good food values.
The WNY Regional Food System Initiative, through its Markets and Buyers Working Group is identifying strategies and working with WNY partners to facilitate greater purchasing of local, fair and healthy foods by institutions across the region. To learn more, get involved or find contact information please visit the WNY Regional Food System Initiative website.