Organic Consumers Association

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Why Farm-to-Institution Sourcing is the Sleeping Giant of Local Food

Strategists are following the money to schools, corporate cafeterias, and hospitals in hopes of rebuilding local economies and bringing healthy food access—literally in through the back door.

The next time someone points to the need for more farmers’ markets as a way to help move local food from a trend to a substantive cultural shift, you might consider telling them about the power of institutional purchasing. It may sound less interesting and, on the surface, it certainly is. (Who doesn’t love buying purple carrots to the sound of a didgeridoo?) But bear with us.

You see, public and private institutions spend billions of dollars each year on food. Schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, corporate cafeterias, and senior care facilities share one thing in common—they prepare, cook, and serve thousands of meals every day. Now, a rising national movement wants to persuade these institutions to source a higher percentage of food from regional producers—with an emphasis on farms, fishermen, and and ranches that follow ecologically sound, socially just, and humane practices. It’s called institutional food procurement, and, while it might not have quite as much romance as some other elements of today’s Good Food Movement, some say this follow-the-money strategy could hold the key to transforming the American food system.

A shift in institutional food buying has the potential for major impacts on not only the local economy, but on food access, according to Amanda Oborne, Vice President of Food and Farms at Ecotrust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that works to advance farm-to-institution initiatives in the Pacific Northwest.

“We put the focus on the buyers with multi-million dollar food procurement budgets because even if they just redirect a couple of percentage points of their budget into the region, that’s going to drive change all the way through the [local] supply chain,” says Oborne. In one example, chefs at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon can order whole hogs from local producers thanks to an innovative partnerships with a meat distribution company.

For Ecotrust, and other farm-to-institution groups across the nation, the goals are two-fold. First, they aim to sway large institutions with huge food budgets to leverage their purchasing power in support of small and mid-sized regional farmers, ranchers, and fisherman as a way to boost the local economies. And to pivot away from consolidated global distributors like Sysco. A second, and just as important goal, is to open up access to healthy, local, and sustainable food for the populations generally served by public institutions.

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