The Foodlink Farmers Fulfillment Center provided the missing connection between area farmers and food purchasers by serving as transportation and distribution hub for bringing fresh local product to local markets. By working to rebuild the local food system, Foodlink aims to improve regional health and wealth.
The following milestones were used to measure progress:
• By January of 2006, Foodlink will have coordinated a planning meeting for the upcoming growing season to involve producers and buyers in dialogue.
• By April of 2006, the Fulfillment Center Coordinator will have attended a minimum of 12 meetings, seminars, or conferences to network and promote participation in the Farmers Fulfillment Center.
• By April of 2006, a minimum of eight new growers will be signed up to participate in the Fulfillment Center in 2006
• By November of 2006, the Fulfillment Center will have distributed a minimum of 1.2 million pounds of produce from local farmers
• By December of 2006, the Fulfillment Center Coordinator will have compiled an evaluation of the 2006 process and prepared a plan for 2007
The Foodlink Farmers Fulfillment Center provided the missing connection between area farmers and food purchasers by serving as an ordering and central distribution point. By capitalizing on existing infrastructure, which includes a fleet of trucks delivering to area non-profits, food warehousing infrastructure, a certified repackaging facility and a computerized inventory system, Foodlink picked up locally grown produce in its 10-county service area. The quality products were then sold in local upstate markets or, with the help of distributors working with Foodlink, sold to retailers, restaurants and more in New York City and beyond.
Building upon the success of the pilot project in the Fall of 2005, Foodlink proceeded to implement the Fulfillment Center project in 2006. A planning meeting was held in February to bring together farmers and potential buyers including school districts, wholesalers, and retailers. Farmers spoke about the challenges to bringing fresh product to market and gave examples of past successes to demonstrate how creativity and partnerships can overcome the barriers. Wholesalers, retailers, and school districts spoke about their produce needs and the logistical requirements. Foodlink also used the forum as on opportunity to promote the Fulfillment Center project and solicit participation as a way to overcome the logistical barriers to getting fresh, local product to local markets. Based on the evaluation surveys, the 22 attendees found the meeting productive. In addition to receiving information, many connections were made and partnerships established.
During the winter months Foodlink also capitalized on the many opportunities to speak at meetings and conferences to reach out to farmers and promote the Fulfillment Center project. This outreach proved to be critical in building trust within the agricultural community and explaining our new role working toward economic development rather than a charity asking for a handout. As a result, an additional 11 Fulfillment Center partners were added in 2006, for a total of 15 producer participants (including the four from the 2005 pilot).
The Northeast SARE grant specifically enabled Foodlink to create promotional materials and to build as website and database to facilitate the connections between buyers and sellers. The website includes general information about the project, concept, and opportunities to participate. It also has a forum for buyers to post their needs and sellers to post their availability. However while the limited use of the web tool was monitored, most transactions required human facilitation. The web presence at buyhereny.com and the literature we had developed were useful marketing tools, but the networking truly moved the project forward and in retrospect we had underestimated its importance.
Once buyers and sellers had been identified, the actual Fulfillment Center transactions took two forms: transportation or brokerage. Some farmers had already identified and established a working relationship with the buyer, and simply required transportation of the product. For example, Pedersen Farms had a contract with Wegmans and all monetary transactions were directly between Pedersen Farms and Wegmans. Foodlink provided the important transportation link by picking up the product from the farm in Seneca County, transporting it 50 miles to Rochester, storing the product at our warehouse facility, and bringing it to the dock appointment at night. This enabled the Pedersens to deliver to a fresh, local market without interrupting the schedule at the farm.
Other Fulfillment Center transactions took on more of a brokerage format. Foodlink would source the product with one transaction, and then pass it along to one of the many outlets identified or created through this project. For example through this access to fresh, local produce, Foodlink identified an opportunity to work with community partners to provide an entrepreneurial experience for youth or adults in transition. Foodlink purchased produce from area farmers and sold it to the community group for their “farm stand” project. This served a dual role of building the local food system while increasing access to nutritious produce in low-income areas of Rochester.
Most Fulfillment Center logistics were arranged through Jack Montague, the Fulfillment Center Coordinator. Requests coming in from the community were directed to him and he also followed up on the many contacts he made while networking. He then made arrangements with our Warehouse Manager for the trucking. Whenever possible, the trip was integrated with existing food bank routes, however at times the needs of the buyer or seller required special arrangements. A fee for service was arranged based on the distance, time requirement, and degree to which the transaction fit within regular food bank operations.
In 2006, the Foodlink Farmers Fulfillment Center made 174 deliveries, distributing 1,054,410 pounds of produce for 15 farmers in Central and Western New York. While we were not able to measure direct farm financial impacts, we know from anecdotal and observational information that the farmers were able to sell at a more profitable price in a fresh market rather than selling to processors in a more global market.
In addition to the immediate impact of this year’s sales, these farmers were also able to make plans for the upcoming season based on the new market opportunities extended to them by the project. In fact, several farmers contacted Foodlink this past winter to discuss plans for 2007 in anticipation of a new or continued partnership. These impacts, though more difficult to quantify, truly illustrate the potential for projects such as ours, and the success is largely due to the marketing and networking capacity afforded to us by the SARE grant.
We were also able to build partnerships for farm-to-school projects including Geneva Central School District, West Irondequiot School District, and East Bloomfield School District, in addition to a farm-to-institution partnership with the University of Rochester. This farm to school connection has great potential to impact on economic development as well as the health and wellness of local students.
Other outlets for fresh, local produce were created by this project and the synergy with Foodlink’s family of programs. We worked with community agencies to establish farm stands, using the sale of the produce we were transporting as an entrepreneurial opportunity for children or adults in transition. Initiatives such as these aim to rebuild the local food system and to impact on community health and wealth by increasing the viability of farmers while improving community access to fresh, local, nutritious produce.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Building upon Foodlink’s standing in the community, the Farmers Fulfillment Center was able to extend the message about the local agricultural industry and innovative ideas to a broad cross-section of individuals. Foodlink’s publications included Fulfillment Center explanations, updates, and thanks to funders. Networking and conversations led to some media coverage. All of this furthered partnerships that will continue to serve Foodlink’s efforts specifically and the local agricultural community in general.
One of Foodlink’s goals for the Fulfillment Center project is to demonstrate the feasibility of reconnecting local farmers with local markets. While we are pleased to have identified an opportunity to contribute through the use of our existing assets and infrastructure, we hope that one day the local food system will be strong enough to once again support independent ventures. In the meantime, given the breadth of the America’s Second Harvest food bank network covering every county in the nation, we see many opportunities for similar efforts in other areas.
The critical components for replication are infrastructure, logistical expertise, and relationship-building. As mentioned previously, it is important to devote sufficient resources to networking and facilitation. In addition, careful consideration of metrics for success will assist in accurate evaluation. Due to the timing of the grant application one year prior to the 2006 harvest, we set an optimistic goal of transporting 1.2 million pounds of food based on our success with moving 600,000 pounds of mostly cauliflower in 2005. Our core business caused us to focus on the number of pounds of food, whereas other factors such as the wholesale value of fresh product reaching local markets would have been more significant indicators of the project’s impact for the agricultural community. Also, as we extended the project to more participants, we were often transporting lighter products which skewed our perceived accomplishments. As soon as we realized this, we began to capture those indicators to better measure the success and impact of our project. Therefore, while we did not quite reach our goal of 1.2 million pounds, other indicators including the number of participants, trips and value of food demonstrate the definite success of this project.
The Foodlink Farmers Fulfillment Center aims to rebuild the local food system, which has deteriorated due to a variety of factors including globalization. This strategy impacts on community health and wealth by increasing the viability of farmers while improving community access to fresh, local, nutritious produce. Foodlink sees these efforts as critical to our core food banking activities and overall goal of combating hunger and its root causes. As the agricultural community is strengthened, the regional economy is strengthened as well leading to fewer residents in need of assistance. In addition, increasing access to nutritious farm product in urban areas can address the health issues facing low-income residents. Therefore this project is a key component of our goal to maximize the stewardship of our assets and infrastructure.
This project also increased awareness of the challenges faced by the local agriculture industry and fostered conversation about innovative solutions. Project implementation required extensive networking at conferences and meetings, which engaged many participants in useful and enlightening conversations. Additionally, promotion of the project through traditional Foodlink channels increased the general public’s exposure to the needs of our local farming community.
Foodlink is continuing the Farmers Fulfillment Center in current and future years, extending the impact of the support of the SARE grant. As the project gains more participants and builds additional connections, Foodlink is witnessing further progress toward the goals outlined above.