Audience participants began the session by going around and giving brief descriptions of how they each associated with the topic of food to institutional kitchens.
At the very beginning, only a couple of the participants claimed that they were involved with institutional kitchens or food advocacy. After going around the room to voice our concerns and “untitled” involvement in our communities, however, it seemed we were all advocates of food reform at local schools, universities, hospitals, and other institutions in our communities.
Panelists included Diane Imrie of Fletcher Allen Health Care, Jamie Baribeau of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Hans Estrin of UVM Extension Local Foods, Rob MacFarlane of Sodexo Campus Services, Abbie Nelson of NOFA-VT and VT Food Education Every Day and Kelly Erwin of the MA Farm to School Project. All panelists shared the idea that for a successful endeavor between farms and institutional kitchens, there had to be a direct relationship between the two establishments. Nelson emphasized that middlemen and any third parties should be eliminated. Through direct relationships, there grows a level of trust and respect between institutions, and clients can feel confident that they are receiving healthier food. Estrin embellished upon this topic stating that a common rut within the food production system is anonymity created when there is a barrier between farmer and buyer. A vital benefit of a farm to kitchen program, Estrin asserted, is maintaining the farmer identity.
An added benefit of farms to institutions, MacFarlane declared, is diminishing mediocre services and food quality at the institution. Although no studies have been published, the panelists agreed that with local, fresh, food, came healthier students, hospital patients, as well as employees and therefore a happier overall population at the given institution. Institutions may benefit because implementing a local food initiative, Estrin speculated, often draws more clients to the institution, even if the cost of the program is higher. Imrie added that institutions that adopt a relationship with a local farm can have more pride within their communities.
Farmers should approach their clients (the institutions) with what they can offer as opposed to trying to meet all of the demands of the institution, which is a problem that many farms encounter. That way, the farmer can confidently provide valuable products that the client can be comfortable with. Furthermore, the client can diversify its imports as well as local investments by creating bonds with several farms.
Farm to institution initiatives are critical for the progress of the food movement. Local food initiatives become more institutional, which enhances progress being made by grassroots organizations. Erwin added that by making local food an institutional issue, it brings local, more nutritious food to a larger population. Farm to institution endeavors negate the notion that local, organic, food is for wealthy foodies, which suggests that bringing farms to institutions can bring the food movement to a whole new level.