University of Vermont

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Department of Plant and Soil Science

Like Farmers Markets on Steroids?

Helping Institutions to Buy Farm-Fresh, Local Food

Professor in Morrill Hall basement classroom.
David Conner’s research on the benefits and obstacles farmers face selling directly to institutional customers becomes part of his classes, such as Applied Research. Students not only learn the latest results, some become involved in the research itself.

Forty-eight students file into the ground-floor classroom of UVM’s Morrill Hall for their last day of “Applied Research Methods.”

Good things might come to those who wait;
Not for those who wait too late;
We gotta go for all we know;

Oldies tunes such as this waft through the laptop computer while Assistant Professor David Conner writes the agenda for the day and for exam week on the chalkboard along with the words “Real Food Challenge.”

This class brings Conner’s research full circle, for applied research is at the core of what he does. And his work with farmers, distributors and buyers to promote the use of fresh, local in-season food is, indeed, very much a real food challenge.

When Conner, who earned his master’s degree in the very department in which he now teaches, returned to UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2010, he brought research with him from Michigan State University on his specialty. He quantifies the benefits and obstacles farmers and large institutions – such as hospitals schools and senior residences – face when they deal directly with each other. The complexity of providing fresh, local food on this scale is, well, akin to farmers markets on steroids.

Three key points emerged: trust is key, traditional linear supply-chain models neglect important components of local food systems and local food relationships foster creative problem solving.

Direct Farm-to-Institution (FTI) food systems, it turns out, have many possible benefits, among them: “the first is the food system and education opportunities,” says Conner. Also, when local food is connected with real farmers’ faces “research shows that it makes it cool and something people are willing to try.” Finally, “when we create markets for farmers, it keeps farm and farmland open. And the relationships formed between farms and institutions and supply chains enhances the social community.”

Conner’s findings there were a springboard for further grants and study here in Vermont.

“I brought some Hatch (federal grant) funds with me, and I feel like I really leveraged them well. The point of a Hatch grant is to get yourself going; I’ve done that,” Conner says. “I’ve forged relationships and ongoing collaboration that is just getting stronger. I’m working with Farm-to-Institution (FTI) New England (a regional umbrella group), Vermont Feed, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care. And I’ve brought in graduate students.”

For example, Noelle Sevoian ‘G13, in her thesis, described the supply chain of Vermont’s mid-sized produce farmers. Her interviews of 19 farmers, distributors and buyers revealed that they were highly motivated by values such as supporting local farms and local economy and a desire to provide healthy foods and instill good eating habits. Being able to provide locally grown foods is a strategic advantage for both distributors and institutions. Institutions value local food for its high quality, educational value and the community support it fosters. However, the difference between the prices that farmers need and the food budget of institutions – especially schools – remains a barrier.

Sevoian’s research along with her degrees in community development and applied economics and civil and environmental engineering led to a plum job with Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets’ Working Lands Initiative as an agricultural development coordinator.

JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED

Florence Becot G’13 CDAE is a research specialist at UVM Center for Rural Studies and also mentored by Conner.

 “Florence and I are looking at the impact of Fletcher Allen’s buying of locally grown food. That’s a tremendous success story,” he says of the regional hospital located in Burlington.

Fletcher Allen calls itself Vermont’s largest restaurant, because it served more than two million meals last year. The hospital aims to have the most sustainable hospital food service in the nation, believing that nutrition and food systems are linked not only to the health of the patients but also the health of the community. Fletcher Allen partners with more than 70 farmers and producers, and over half of the food it serves comes from local or sustainable resources, says the hospital’s website.

“Our goal is to build on our strong partnerships with local farms, in hopes that our commitment to purchasing local food not only allows us to improve the health of our patients and customer, but helps keep our farms healthy also,” says Fletcher Allen’s Nutrition Services Director Diane Imrie.

“Given that we spend over $1.5 million annually on local food, we assume that we play a part in farm viability in Vermont, but we are interested in exploring what economic impact we have on the Vermont farm community so that we can share that information with other health care institutions,” says Imrie.

That’s where Becot and Conner’s research comes in.

Imrie hopes their research results will help her quantify the economic impact Fletcher Allen's direct food purchasing practices have in Vermont, so others can easily see it.

“We believe that there may be more than just the direct economic impact – some sort of multiplier,” she says. “Other hospitals in Vermont are committed to reaching the Farm-to-Plate goals and so will benefit from an example locally.”

Becot presented her work in progress to hospital food directors at a retreat in Killington the end of January. 

HELPING FARMERS DO WHAT THEY DO BEST

Conner doesn’t only work with farmers and buyers. “I work with all members of the supply chain including distributors – for a food system to work it has to work all along the line,” he says. Conner cites a Vermont distributor, Black River Produce, as an example of best practices, “because they long ago made local foods as the backbone of their business. They bring the efficiency and the scale that the institutions need and the farmers couldn’t manage,” he says. “The middle man provides aggregation and distribution that farmers cannot. Otherwise it takes the farmers away from what they do well, which is to grow food. They get to sell more of the food and spend their time doing what they do best, which is being on the farm.”

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