Final Report for CNE12-097

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2012: $14,625.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
linda Phillips
Seeking Common Ground, Inc
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Project Information

Summary:

This project sought to increase the volume and consistency of local farm sales to institutional cafeteria and other food retailers. An initial mailing and other outreach activities invited farmers and food service directors to join a list serve to promote direct group communication. Due to lack of familiarity and technical difficulties with the list serve, few joined. Instead project communications were distributed via e-mail to those who expressed an interest and to those who ”should be interested.” Currently, the distribution list includes 41 farmers; 34 food service directors and staff in school, college, camp, hospital, nursing home, and emergency food kitchens; 3 grocery store perishables managers; 5 restaurateurs; 2 produce distributors; and nearly 40 interested others, largely health system wellness educators and extension staff. The distribution list includes 6 food service directors and 9 interested others, primarily extension staff, in neighboring counties.

The Year 2 participant survey/interview results indicate project communications regarding best serving practices, recipes consumer interest, and economic benefits of local food were well received, though no local food purchases can be directly attributed to the project communications. The Year 2 survey also identified $35,000 in local food sales to local institutions, up from $28,000 in the 2012 survey though the respondents were not identical.

The project also intended to engage food directors, restaurants, and other food retailers in promoting different local items as the Harvest of the Month. Such food outlets continue to serve local food, but did not buy into the Harvest of the Month concept and did not substantially increase the volume or variety of local foods served. The project did undertake 3 cafeteria based and 3 community festival based local food promotions involving over 2,000 people tasting and/or learning about opportunities and efforts to serve local food in areas cafeterias.

This project has contributed to maintaining local food purchasing despite barriers of availability, cost, and convenience. This project has also substantially increased the visibility of direct and indirect institutional purchasing among smaller and beginning farmers, food service directors, extension personal, and the general public.

Project Objectives:

This project identified 3 activities to increase the volume, items, and consistency of local farm sales to institutional cafeterias and other food retailers:

List serve,
Cafeteria Harvest of the Month commitment,
Outreach to supermarkets, restaurants, and other food retailers.

Specific goals included list serve participation by 10 to 12 farmers and 6 to 8 food service directors; 3 to 5 food service directors willing to commit to Harvest of the Month activities; and 10 to 12 contacts with supermarkets, restaurants, and other conventional retail buyers resulting in 10 to 15 Harvest of the Month events serving and promoting local food.

There are 41 farmers and 34 food service directors on the distribution list, however there has been little communication from the farmers regarding upcoming availability of product or from food service directors looking to purchase specific items or local produce generally. This activity reached more farmers and food service directors than anticipated, but the level of engagement was lower than expected.

There were 3 cafeteria based local food promotions and many more instances of local produce served in these and other cafeterias. Food service directors understand the economic and health benefits of serving local food, but are slow to value transparency when serving local food to customers. Food service directors were willing to continue to serve the 5 to 8 items they have successfully sourced and served, but were unwilling to experiment with new items. In the Year 2 survey, one food service director indicated a willingness to plan a harvest of the month program for the upcoming year.

The project contacted 10 to 12 supermarkets and restaurants many of whom are selling and promoting local food items. Retail and restaurant outlets were however, not interested in assistance with point of sale Harvest of the Month promotions. Given the lack of interest in point of sale promotions, we participated in several food related community festivals. Approximately 2,000 people were reached by the cafeteria or community based local food promotions.

Together the grocer and restaurant contacts and the six school and community local food events fell short of the target of 3 to 5 schools promoting local foods monthly and 10 to 15 additional Harvest of the Month events envisioned in the project proposal.

Introduction:

This project was undertaken to provide an efficient means of communication between farmers and institutional food service directors and in so doing to expand farm sales. Surveys and interviews completed under a previous project had indicated the need for consistent communication to spur farm to cafeteria sales.

The project also intended to adapt the Harvest of the Month concept, used in California and Oregon schools and used successfully by Seeking Common Ground to start a Farm to School project in a nearby district, to expand the items served and community awareness of local food options in cafeterias, restaurants, and retail settings.

Research

Materials and methods:

The project was envisioned to use an initial mailing to invite list serve participation.  The list serve was envisioned as a way to provide consistent communication about the availability of local food and to allow direct communication between farmers and food service directors as a group.   The project also envisioned cafeteria and point of sale Harvest of the Month promotions.

 

An initial mailing generated little project engagement.  There were lack of familiarity and technical difficulties with the list serve which were resolved by supplementing list serve communications with an e-mail distribution list based on previously collected contact information and phone outreach.  See links for Interview Recording Tools for outreach to farmers, meat producers, food service directors, and grocers

 

The project did employ bi-weekly, in peak season, and monthly, in off season, communications to encourage increased and year round use of local foods. Project communications included contact information and recipes for purchasing and serving in season items;  sharing photos and best practices from those serving local  foods; and information on the consumer interest and economic  value of serving local foods. During Year 2 outreach to farmers included visiting farmers markets and scheduling on-site visits in addition to e-mail and phone outreach.

 

Over the course of the grant, there were many reminders to food service directors of the importance of combining local food purchases with transparency – making customer awareness of local food options.  Food service directors were also requested to accept support (project personal and banners) to build support for continuing and expanding use of local food in their institutions.

 

Three of nine school food service directors accepted our on-site promotional efforts and directors of other types of cafeterias did not choose to participate.  The food service directors with the most personal commitment to serving local food, did not accept outside support to grow awareness and support for their efforts.  Perhaps they felt operating under the radar was safer in this era of tight institutional budgets and food service operating deficits, in spite of evidence that farm to cafeteria programs with widespread awareness and community support are the most sustainable in the long run.

 

Given the low level of interest in assistance promoting Harvest of the Month or local foods in area cafeterias, restaurants, and grocery stores, project resources were also used to promote local food with tastings and information at food related community events.

 

The project also featured surveys at the end of each growing season to gain information on the value of local foods sold or purchased.  The Year 1 survey documented that in spite of difficulties resulting from changes in school food regulations and weather related reduced yields, there was still $28,000 in local food sold and served.  The Year 2 survey identified a greater volume of local food sold and served, that local participants valued project communications, and that some participants may be engaging in pre-season farmer/FSD planning discussion and planning for Harvest of the Month promotions.

 

The 2013 Year 2 survey included a local food purchase tracking tool in use in the Seeking Common Ground Harvest of the Month program in Penfield. See link for Annual Local Food Use Tracking Tool. Several food service directors used the tracking tool to submit information providing detailed information on quantity, price, and pack of some items.  One food service director commented that now she knows better what tracking information we are looking for and will be able to provide more detailed information in the future.

 

 

Research results and discussion:

During the first growing season only 4 farmers, 2 food service directors, and 1 coop extension educator joined the list serve. Several other interested food service directors reported difficulty joining the list serve due to computer filters applied by their school. During 2013 3 additional farmer and 3 others not directly buying or selling produce joined the list serve. The total distribution list however, was expanded to include 41 farmers; 34 food service directors and staff in school, college, camp, hospital, nursing home, and emergency food kitchens; 3 grocery store perishables managers; 5 restaurateurs; 2 produce distributors; and nearly 40 interested others largely health system wellness educators and extension staff. The distribution list includes 6 food service directors and 9 interested others, primarily extension staff, in neighboring counties. Two additional grocers where contacted and visited, but given the limited selection of produce stocked in their stores, they were not considered likely to participate and were not added to the distribution list.

During the spring of 2013 local food promotions were held at Honeoye Central School, Naples Elementary School, and Geneva North Street School. Promotions coincided with the cafeteria serving local food including winter squash, strawberries/rhubarb, and asparagus and in 2 cases samples were available to distribute to students. Each event involved contact with approximately 400 to 500 students, and 6 to 8 teachers and other professional staff.

Since food service directors had not committed to the Harvest of the Month concept and serving and promoting local items each month, these and other local food promotional events featured our Finger Lakes Farm to Cafeteria banner and laminated serving line signage. In addition to encouraging students to try new or local foods the promotion encouraged them to look for the Finger Lakes Farm to Cafeteria logo on the serving line to let them know when local foods are being served. It has been difficult to assess actual use of serving line signage when local foods are being served.

In addition to the above cafeteria Finger Lakes Farm to Cafeteria promotions, our outreach identified other opportunities to expand local food sales through participation in food related festivals. In August and September 2013 local food promotional activities were conducted in conjunction with Love Local, a community education event sponsored by the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges; Fun on the Farm, a biennial farm based education event sponsored the Ontario County Farm Bureau; and an annual farmers market at the Canandaigua Primary School. Each of these events included a display about growing, preserving, and serving local food in area cafeterias; creating a healthy, fair, and affordable food system; identifying source of their last dinner; and an opportunity to leave contact information to join with others interested in expanding farm to cafeteria sales. These events also included sampling local foods including round yellow lemon cucumbers, kohlrabi, and local herbs.

A staff person from American Fruit and Vegetable, a regional produce distributor with 50 local farmer suppliers, also sold local foods at Love Local. At the Canandaigua Primary School Farmers Market, students and staff had the opportunity to purchase foods from several local farm vendors. These events involved contact with approximately 600 people. Those leaving contact information included public and private school parents, teachers, college students, and scout leaders.

The project identified 5 restaurants interested in sourcing local foods and the Harvest of the Month concept. One is a Mexican restaurant operated by a native who grew much of his own produce in 2012 and also featured Iroquois White Corn, a heritage corn being re-introduced for tribal and commercial use by the Seneca people and the Ganondagan State Historic site. The Mexican restaurant menu is not well suited to changes based on seasonally available local foods. Instead, the owner maximizes use of local foods by buying and preserving salsa ingredients, using cabbage (a significant local crop likely local even if not intentionally so) instead of lettuce on most dishes, and experimenting with specials. The owner indicated experimenting with a number of local products, including the Iroquois White Corn, New York state produced tortillas, and other items, but being constrained by customer willingness to pay. Two restaurants featuring local foods closed during the course of the grant period, a third recently changed chef and another has never been successfully contacted during phone or on-site outreach, though the owner remains on the distribution list.

In 2013, fewer food service directors responded to e-mail and phone outreach to report local food sales than in 2012. Six of the 8 food service directors who provided detailed information in 2012 provided detailed purchase information for 2013. In 2013 an additional two food service directors plus two new responders provided some local food purchase information. The two non-respondents were estimated to decrease purchasing. Estimates were based on our knowledge of the program and the director’s commitment, the actions of other directors, and the relative size of the school’s enrollment. Based on the information provided by food service directors, it is conservatively estimated that fresh produce purchases at the 9 school districts and the responding hospital, community college, and emergency food provider were approximately $35,000 in 2013.

In 2013 we were only able to interview one of the seven farmers interviewed about local cafeteria sales in 2012 responded in 2013. Barron’s Pratt Vineyard had sales of approximately $12,000 up more than 20 percent from 2012 due largely to better weather and higher yields. While the farmer reports all produce is wholesaled to local institutions, local food purchasing information and estimates accounted for less than half of reported grapes sales. This suggests actual local purchases of grapes and other local items may be higher than the conservative estimate of $35,000, perhaps as much as $70,000.

This project has substantially increased the visibility of direct and indirect institutional purchasing among smaller and beginning farmers, food service directors, extension personal, and the general public. It has also generated significant interest from outside the target area This project has contributed to maintaining local food purchasing despite barriers of availability, cost, and convenience. It has also expanded awareness of best serving practices, consumer interest, and economic benefits of local food among farmers, food service directors, extension staff, and interested members of the public. It is however, difficult to attribute any changes in farm income or farm viability directly to this project.

The most significant impact of this project in terms of increasing local farm sales occurred outside the target area based on a connection at a project gathering. This chance meeting between a food bank representative and a local food buyer for a regional distributor lead to a ten fold increase in production and distribution of locally grown and packaged sliced apples from 7 to 70 cases per week. The regional distributor indicates there is significant additional market potential for this product as well as other food bank lightly processed local products including salads, winter squash puree, and possibly diced vegetables once commercial packaging and food safety standards are met.

This dramatic result was the culmination of several years of effort by extension and school districts in a neighboring county to demonstrate that students were more likely to eat not waste sliced fruit (an increase of 32% in the number of all students who took apples when they were sliced and further analysis showing that children who took apples wasted 30% less when the apples were sliced) and piloting a local product processed by the regional food bank. However, it took a connection between the producer and a regional distributor at a project gathering to gain entry of the sliced apple pilot product into 50 school districts and other customers in three counties. This product replaces sliced apples packaged out of state, fresh apples in some elementary and after school settings, and reduces use of commercial slicers provided for student use in pilot schools when documenting increased consumption and reduced waste of sliced apples.

There are plans to pilot a value added local carrot product next. With local farmer participation, the Koolrabi product piloted by Bejo Seeds in the California market could be the next locally grown, lightly processed product available for distribution through existing channels.

Another outcome of this project and years of previous networking events, skills training, sharing successes, and hand holding, is one farmer/institutional pair poised to discuss the potential for expanding farm to cafeteria sales before planting decisions are made. Additionally, Farm to cafeteria activities are included in the work plan of the Community Health Improvement Plan developed by the three hospital/health systems operating in Ontario County to reduce obesity. Interested stakeholders in the health and wellness field are already assisting school districts and other community groups with nutrition education and provided the conduit for funding for locally grown school food and the organization of the School Food Independence committee. It remains to be seen what additional resources the health sector may contribute to promote expanding consumption of healthy local produce, but there is awareness that Farm to Cafeteria efforts complement their goals.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Project outreach activities included an initial mailing, local food promotions in cafeterias and at other local events, and e-mail, phone, farmers market, and on-site contact with farmers, food service directors, and other stakeholders.

The initial mailing was not particularly successful in engaging project participants. As previously noted, its effectiveness might have been enhanced by including an easy to complete postcard check off to express interest. The flyer mailed required interested recipients to complete multiple steps to express interest by phoning, e-mailing, or joining the Yahoo!group. Local food promotions in cafeterias and at other local events exposed large numbers of people to the project, but did not result in on-going commitments to serve more local food. The list serve offered the potential for two-way communication between a farmer and multiple buyers or a food service director and multiple farmers but this opportunity was not highly valued. List serve participation was also stymied by a low level of familiarity with the concept and real and perceived difficulties of joining or participating.

Over the course of the grant period the most effective means of interacting with farmers was arranging on-farm visits and attending farmers markets. Phone and e-mail were the most effective outreach activities targeted at food service directors, while grocers and restaurateurs responded best to phone calls and site visits. In all cases, the most valuable information was exchanged in scripted, but open ended conservations rather than e-mails or digital surveys.

Though not targeted, a sizable number of stakeholders not buying or selling food were engaged in the project. Future efforts to expand the local food system may want to include activities intended to leverage this interest.

Project activities have been the basis for information sharing at a spring 2013 meeting of the Central New York chapter of the School Nutrition Association, a November 2012 post on University of Vermont’s Food Feed Blog http://learn.uvm.edu/foodsystemsblog/2012/11/page/3/ and will be adapted for sharing via the blog of the Food and Health Network of Central NY http://fahnblog.wordpress.com/projects-and-programs/farm-to-school/ as well as the Seeking Common Ground and Cornell Farm to Cafeteria websites.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

See text under Outcomes/Impacts

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Two of the most replicable activities of this project include wide spread sharing of model bid specifications for local purchasing and sources for food staples. Vendor discussion guides and model specifications for intent to purchase, informal pre-season agreements, and formal bid specification for produce, meat and other local foods received from Farm to Institution New England and the National Farm to School Coalition were some of the items most requested for re-sending in follow up conversations. Other frequently requested resources were contacts for purchasing staples such as beans and grains. Though it seems many of these local products are not cost competitive, there is still interest; even nominal institutional purchasing can significantly expand this market segment.

A third example of an easily replicable activity is use of project logos (Harvest of the Month or Finger Lakes Farm to Cafeteria) on serving lines. Such signage is an easy, low cost method to significantly improve transparency of institutional purchasing of local food, but convincing staff of the importance of such transparency and to use logos accurately as signage not decoration is much more challenging.

Future Recommendations

It is commonly assumed that the higher cost and inconvenience of purchasing local foods is the primary barrier limiting Farm to Cafeteria sales. Our experience has been that there are few farmers planting items intended for sale to institutions. The current agricultural sector is dominated by farmers relying primarily on direct sales (farmers markets, CSAs, and restaurants) or commodity sales into the global food market. There is a need to repopulate the middle of the agricultural sector, farmers selling some or all of their produce directly or via regional distributors for local consumption whether institutions, grocers, or other food service establishments. There may also be a need to develop and disseminate financial and operational models for such farm operations.

Another area of inquiry beyond the scope of this project is the economic and business benefits of transparency in distributing and serving local food. For distributors, investing in ordering, invoicing, and labeling infrastructure to provide food source transparency is costly. The growth of local food systems will be enhanced by the dissemination of case studies profiling the business success of such investments in terms of growth in revenue and/or market share. It may also be important to document the impact of customers asking for more access to affordable and identifiably local food.

Food service directors understand the economic and health benefits of serving local food, but are slow to value transparency when serving local food to customers. There is some evidence that serving fresh local food can increase participation and help school food authorities break even. Such information needs to be more widely disseminated, especially in the face of news stories highlighting the impact of new school food regulations and their emphasis on healthy fruits and vegetables in decreasing participation and straining budgets.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.