As New Yorkers strive to eat well and support local farming by putting more fresh food on their kitchen tables, many are demanding that food service providers do the same. But our large-scale, national food system has made it difficult for institutional buyers to purchase from smaller producers, leaving small and mid-sized farms out of an important market, and local food off cafeteria menus.
Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) program is a state-wide initiative to expand markets for locally grown agricultural products in colleges, schools, hospitals and other New York institutional settings. More local food in cafeterias means good business for farmers and healthy meals for everyone. Read more to learn about how FINYS is working on collaborative solutions, and find out why New York college students will be seeing more local ingredients on dining hall menus this school year.
Buying local at the institutional level – the challenge:
New York, although one of the largest agricultural states, has experienced a remarkable loss of farms and farmland over the past several generations. Small and mid-sized farms, in particular, continue to be financially insecure as they struggle to cover costs and compete in a food system that favors large-scale operations. Consumers have been forced to rely on large supermarkets with vast distribution networks transporting food from distant parts of the country and overseas.
The good news is that New Yorkers of all agesare beginning to demand healthy, local food and a connection to those who produce it. For many, eating locally produced food at home is a matter of changing shopping and cooking habits; buying from specialty grocers, farmers markets, and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, along with taking more time to prepare fresh meals. But what about the thousands of meals served to students every day in cafeterias? To hospital patients and nursing home residents? And what about families in economically stretched communities where access to local food is limited and parents are more likely to depend on schools and public programs to provide healthy meals to their kids?
Public and private institutions are now responding to these questions by attempting to step in to meet the demand for high value, source-identified food. Yet the distribution channels that supply these types of outlets discourage buying from individual local farms that produce moderate volumes of food. Too few systems have been in place for farms to aggregate products into large quantities, and in spite of good intentions, many buyers lack the relationships and knowledge to procure food directly from local farms. Recognizing that overcoming the complex issues in our food system will require a collaborative approach among businesses and organizations. LEP was able to turn to the New York office of the American Farmland Trust (AFT-NY) and provide the bulk of the funding for FINYS to help address the issues with just such an approach.
FINYS takes on a leading role:
FINYS is a unique program designed to tackle barriers to institutional purchasing of local food. FINYS works to promote and expand institutional buying of New York State farm products by helping to build business relationships between local farms and food service buyers, facilitating local distribution and processing, convening stakeholders, and working with a wide range of institutional buyers on shaping procurement policies.
Another thriving component of FINYS’s work is helping colleges and universities implement robust systems for purchasing local food for their campuses.
Focus on Higher Education:
The State University of New York (SUNY) system alone spends millions of dollars feeding hundreds of thousands of students on a vast network of campuses across the state. With this in mind, FINYS created a pilot program, Farm-to-SUNY, which is now linking farmers, food processors and their products to four state schools: SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Oswego, SUNY Oneonta and the University of Albany.
Not only has Farm-to-SUNY brought locally grown tomatoes, potatoes, greens, squash, and beansinto dining halls, it is also engaging a student body that is as hungry for knowledge as it is for fresh food. Student involvement takes the form of “Sustainability Interns” who participate in marketing, conducting surveys, and other school-wide outreach efforts. As students re-convene on campuses this month to commence the 2014-15 school year, a new “food of the month” promotion is taking shape in cafeterias.
August brought New York watermelon. September’s focus is on sweet corn, with FINYS working with local growers, distributors and processors to provide schools with locally grown corn – fresh on the cob as well as frozen for off-season.Later in the school year, pizza and marinara sauce processed from fresh local tomatoes at Farm to Table Co-Packers in Kingston, New York, is expected to be a featured star performer.
“This is a pilot program and we expect it to provide a model for other colleges and universities – both public and private – who want to purchase more local food and understand not only how to promote it amongst their students but also how to make it taste great” said Glenda Neff, of FINYS. “The Sustainability interns are a really important part of our program.”
This October SUNY New Paltz campus will be the location for AFT’s Farm to Institution Summit. During this one-day event, more than a hundred stakeholders from various segments of the institutional market, including K-12 school districts, colleges, and healthcare providers will gather to share strategies and best practices for purchasing farm products for schools and other institutions in the Hudson Valley. The Summit promises to mark a critical step in FINYS’s mission to create a robust network of institutional buyers, distributers and local farms in the state. Sarah Brannen of the Local Economies Project serves on the FINYS steering committee and will be present at all convenings.
More about AFT and FINYS:
Other FINYS initiatives include creating a statewide committee of leaders from the non-profit, government, educational, and private sectors; conducting research regarding purchasing patterns by public and private institutions; and furthering the “Farm to Shared Meals” program for institutions receiving public funds to serve New Yorkers in need, including senior centers, food pantries and emergency service programs.
New Yorkers everywhere are starting to think about what’s on their trays as they move through the cafeteria lines. They’re also thinking about keeping farmland and farming vital in their communities. AFT’s FINYS is working to ensure that institutional food is fresher, healthier and locally grown, and that institutional dollars spent on food go to support our farmers and farmland in New York State. And the Local Economies Project is working to ensure that the businesses of farming, food processing, and distribution are locally owned, environmentally sound, and socially just.