Central hubs bring farms and schools together
Guest post by Will Gray, Wallace Center at Winrock International
No farm to institution relationship offers more positive benefit for local communities than farm to school. Changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and preschools enriches the connection communities have with fresh, healthy food and fosters a critical understanding and appreciation of agriculture among the next generation. I imagine this comes as a surprise to none of us – the National Farm to School Network has been pioneering initiatives since 2007 – but with the emergence of the childhood obesity epidemic over the last decade, it seems that fundamentally reshaping the American diet has never been more critical.
And the will to change the way our children eat is strong. Farm to school systems are evolving throughout the country, with some 44 percent of US schools serving regionally-produced vegetables to almost 24 million students. Both government and private funding opportunities continue to emerge as more states, foundations and interest groups step up and pledge support. However, in such a quickly-changing landscape, new challenges emerge alongside successes. One such challenge is the growing need for regional food system infrastructure that can support expansion in farm to school supply chains.
Farm to school relationships are complex, to say the least. Farmers work to plan production in order to meet the consistency and quantity requirements of a larger buyer, while school foodservice employees manage multiple deliveries and vendor relationships while prepping and serving meals. State and national regulatory requirements must be met; food safety certifications secured and audited; processing needs identified; education and outreach initiatives established. All the while, the bottom line looms, as market forces and budget constraints apply pressure at both ends of a seemingly impossible task: supporting the development of both farmer and student simultaneously.
For many farmers, and for many schools, the pressures are too much to handle without support. What’s missing is a central hub – a values-driven, mission-oriented organization providing many of the services historically offered by conventional broad-line distribution companies or foodservice suppliers. These regional food hubs – over 300 nationwide, with more organizing each year – actively manage the aggregation, distribution and sale of source-identified food products from local and regional producers, increasing each partner farm’s capacity to access and satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.
Food hubs are as diverse as the producers and the markets they serve. Some are for-profit, some non-profit, some are lean start-ups, while others are well-established and have operated for years. Some provide processing and value-adding services, food safety training and certification, and marketing and branding services, while others simply aggregate and distribute. While size, services, and legal status vary according to regional need and organizational vision, a few defining characteristics emerge across the industry, most notably a triple bottom line commitment to positive economic, social and environmental impacts within their respective communities and a focus on increased food access, equity and community development.
Food hubs play a valuable role in the farm to school supply chain – perhaps a critical role, as further development of farm to school initiatives creates more and more need for local food consistency, quality control, food safety assurance, and school-friendly processing. With a diverse population of farmers, academics, politicians, and business entrepreneurs dedicating themselves to the common goal of food system improvement, the Wallace Center is working to link together local activities into regional initiatives and finally into national impact. By building partnerships with support organizations like the National Farm to School Network and School Food Focus, government agencies like the USDA, universities and extension agencies, and for- and non-profit producers, food hubs and other Good Food businesses around the country, Wallace Center is able to provide research, technical assistance, and other support initiatives to hundreds of organizations and thousands of producers across the United States.
As farm to school continues to expand, building on years of tireless advocacy, organization and on-the-ground implementation, Wallace Center will continue to capture and communicate the challenges, successes, and lessons learned along the way. Our own hub, The National Good Food Network, is a hub of information where we aggregate, distribute and market best practices, business development tools, case studies and industry benchmarks from our own research and that of partner organizations all over the country. As a hub, we too strive to provide the strong infrastructure necessary to support Good Food expansion. Through collaboration and communication, we build the capacity of our partners in pursuit of our common goal: feeding better food to more people.
The Wallace Center at Winrock International facilitates regional, collaborative efforts to move Good Food – healthy, green, fair, affordable food – beyond direct-marketing and into wholesale markets to expand the impact of regional food systems. We believe this work increases the viability of small and medium-scale growers, adds economic vitality to both rural and urban areas, and reaches families in their schools, communities, and homes.