A Coordinated Farm to Institution Supply Chain Approach to Increase Market Access and Community Food Security

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2024: $399,923.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2027
Grant Recipients: NC State University; NC A&T State University; Lumbee Farmers Cooperative
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Dr. J. Dara Bloom
NC State University
Dr. Biswanath Dari
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
Kirsten Blackburn
CEFS at NC State
Shironda Brown
CEFS, NC State University
Dr. Lauren Davis
NC A&T State University
Remi Ham
NC State University
Dr. Katie Sanders
NC State University
Robyn Stout
CEFS, NC State University


No commodities identified


No practices identified

Proposal abstract:

Regionalization has been identified as one strategy to promote
food system resilience. However, many of the markets that are the
hallmark of local food systems, such as farmers markets,
have historically excluded consumers who are lower-income and of
color. Farm to Institution programs, such as Farm to Early Care
and Education (ECE), School, University, and Senior Services, are
one strategy to address this equity issue. These community
institutions are a primary source of meals for children,
youth, and older adults, especially in rural areas, and often
rely on federal food assistance programs to subsidize feeding
programs. Integrating local food into meals and snacks at these
institutions has the potential to improve consumer access to
healthy food, while also opening up new markets for
small scale, limited resource farmers. 

Research has shown that selling into wholesale markets, such as
institutions, increases the economic viability of small to
mid-size regional farmers more than selling into direct
markets alone. Despite these benefits, many
historically marginalized and underrepresented farmers of
color lack the infrastructure, resources, and experience
needed to access these markets, due to
historical discrimination in resource allocation. Most small
to mid-sized farms also do not have the same logistical and
scale-related efficiencies observed in the mainstream food
system, resulting in higher marginal costs. This has led to the
question of how local food systems can be “scaled-up” so that the
lower prices in wholesale markets can be offset by bulk volumes
and supply chain efficiencies to increase profitability. 

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) has
implemented Farm to Institution (F2I) programs in North Carolina
for many years. Through this work, we have identified and
documented several barriers to establishing successful supply
chains, including the volume, type, availability and distribution
of products. However, we have never intentionally coordinated
local food procurement among multiple F2I programs. We
hypothesize that F2I supply chain coordination will generate
strategies that can address the challenges observed when programs
are implemented individually. We anticipate these strategies
might include specifications for aesthetically imperfect products
(“seconds”), a system for aggregating orders and production
planning to increase the volume purchased, and shared
distribution routes to reduce costs. 

We propose piloting and evaluating a coordinated F2I approach in
Robeson County, North Carolina, a rural county with the highest
Native American population in the state. We will work with a
newly formed cooperative of farmers who are members of the Lumbee
Tribe to assess their readiness and provide technical assistance
to facilitate institutional market access and promote climate
resilience agricultural practices to reduce costs. We will
conduct a market assessment and supply chain analysis across
these four institution types to develop strategies that
streamline F2I local food procurement. We will conduct formative
and summative evaluations to make mid project adjustments, and
identify best practices. Finally, we will work with NC
Cooperative Extension’s Local Food Program Team to create a F2I
Work Group that will develop a F2I Toolkit for Extension Agents,
which we will disseminate through Extension trainings, webinars,
conference presentations, etc.

Project objectives from proposal:

  1. Assess Market and Analyze Supply Chains: We will analyze
    community institution markets (Early Care and Education,
    School, University, and Senior Services) in order to understand
    institutions’ capacity, requirements, and delivery needs. We
    will map current supply chains by taking into account both
    institutions’ and farmers’ capacity and locations in order to
    identify strategies that create efficiencies. The market
    assessment and supply chain analysis will inform the
    development of an integrated Farm to Institution market
    channel/supply chain.
  2. Assess and Support Farmer Readiness: We will assess
    small-scale, historically marginalized, limited resource farmer
    readiness to sell to community institutions, including what
    agricultural practices they currently employ. Based on input
    from participating farmers, we will provide training and
    establish systems to support regenerative agricultural
    practices that reduce costs, and will also prepare farmers to
    sell to institutions by offering GAP and post-harvest handling
  3. Develop and Pilot Farm to Institution Supply Chains: We
    will design a pilot project that will implement the integrated
    Farm to Institution supply chain strategies identified in
    Objective 1, once participating farmers have received training
    and are prepared to sell to these markets (Objective 2). These
    supply chain strategies will streamline sourcing from small to
    mid size, historically marginalized farmers by matching supply
    and demand and coordinating distribution routes, among other
    strategies that embed efficiencies into the system. 
  4. Evaluate Pilot: We will conduct a formative evaluation
    after the pilot has been implemented for one year. This
    evaluation will be both process-based, to understand
    participants’ experiences and where the pilot could be
    improved, as well as measuring key indicators to assess whether
    the project is on track to meet goals (see Evaluation section
    for a list of indicators and metrics). Based on this formative
    evaluation, we will make mid-project adjustments. We will
    conduct a summative evaluation at the end of the project that
    will allow us to report on progress made towards key
    indicators, as well as to  develop a set of best practices
    and lessons learned to aid in project replication. 
  5. Create and Disseminate Resources: We will engage with NC
    Cooperative Extension’s Local Food Program team to bring
    together a Work Group of campus-based extension specialists and
    county-based extension agents to develop a Farm to Institution
    Toolkit. This Toolkit will house materials about how to
    facilitate an integrated Farm to Institution procurement
    system, using replicable tools and lessons learned from this
    project. We will also include a section on climate-smart
    agricultural practices that can reduce producers’ costs, which
    should be implemented together with selling to institutional
    markets to achieve desired sustainability goals, as well as
    post-harvest handling to prepare producers to sell to
    institutional markets. We will promote this toolkit through
    CEFS’ communication channels, as well as through webinars with
    partner organizations and presentations at key researcher and
    practitioner-oriented conferences. We will also develop a
    train-the-trainer session for Extension agents based on the
    toolkit, and will offer this training in each of NC State
    Extension’s five districts in order to promote farmer adoption
    of the model in other counties. 
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.