What Does COVID-19 Mean For the Future of the Farm to Institution Movement?

by Lisa Elaine Held


In September, Farm to Institution New England (FINE) hosted an online forum on institutional food and COVID-19. Nikki Ayres, the sales manager for the local food hub Farm Fresh Rhode Island shared that when schools, universities, and restaurants began shutting down in March, her team was suddenly faced with having only 10 wholesale buyers instead of the usual 150-200. Kathy Wicks, the sustainability director for University of Massachusetts’ dining programs, noted that at colleges that buy from local farms, the effects of the pandemic were ongoing. “We’re at about 10 percent capacity of what we were at a year ago at this time, serving about 1,000 meals a day compared to 50,000 meals a day,” she said.

Fewer meals means fewer farm purchases, and similar slowdowns have happened at schools, hospitals, and office cafeterias around the country, dealing a serious blow to the farm-to-institution movement.

In recent years, increasing institutional buying has been a popular focus for groups trying to grow local food supply chains, with the understanding that if places with more purchasing power invest in buying local, sustainable food at high volumes, small farms will benefit at a scale not possible selling kale and collards bunch by bunch at a farmers’ market. Increasing fresh, local food served in institutional meals can also democratize high-value produce, since many low-income families rely on institutional food through meals in schools, hospitals, and even prisons.

But with COVID-19 upending many initiatives due to a massive shift away from communal dining, questions abound in terms of whether that focus may shift back to finding better ways to reach eaters at home. At the same, there are some examples of institutions staying the course and even increasing local purchasing against all odds.

“I desperately hope that it’s just a flash in the pan and things will go back to a better normal in the future,” said Samantha Levy, who works on American Farmland Trust’s Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) program, focused primarily on K-12 schools. “It serves so many positive purposes. You’re investing in the farm economy. You’re keeping more of your taxpayer dollars and your food dollars local. And you’re also improving access to quality food for kids, no matter their socioeconomic status. This is one the rare egalitarian ways to get quality local food onto the plates of everyone.”

Farm to Institution Impacts

When it comes to documenting the impacts so far, amid an ongoing crisis, much of the data available is still anecdotal. As part of a USDA project documenting local food systems’ responses to COVID-19, FINE conducted an August 2020 Impact Assessment of its network. It summarized some of the challenges institutional dining programs were facing that might affect their sourcing, like decreased sales, increased costs due to PPE and packaging, and the strain of the unknown.

It noted that the impact on farms who rely on institutional purchases is still unknown, with some reporting financial losses and others seeing an increase in business after shifting to direct-to-consumer sales.

Investing more dollars in food from local farms is one tenet of the Good Food Purchasing Program, a framework in which large institutions agree to use their buying power to embrace five core values: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition. So far, 53 institutions around the country — including schools, airports, prisons, city governments, and parks departments — have adopted the framework, in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Denver, New York, Baltimore and Chicago.

To determine the impacts of COVID-19 on how the many institutions they work with were able to continue to meet their purchasing commitments, the team at the Center for Good Food Purchasing is currently at work gathering procurement data to do a comprehensive analysis.

But as a first step , the director of institutional impact, Laura Edwards-Orr, conducted preliminary  interviews with staff at 11 enrolled institutions. She found that at the three healthcare and corrections institutions included, operations had not been significantly affected. But food service directors at the eight K-12 schools included were struggling to even keep their heads above water, and most reported fewer “local, organic, high-welfare” purchases and an increased reliance on large suppliers and food service management companies.

“Everyone I talked to was like, ‘My number one priority is keeping my staff safe and employed and feeding families. And as much as I want to keep this moving and I’m going to do what I can, those are the top two priorities, full stop,” she said. “I would say the commitment to the values of the Good Food Purchasing Program is unwavering, but economic difficulties they’re facing and the operational changes have in many, many ways limited their ability to continue some of the initiatives that they had underway.”

When schools closed, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave them the ability to shift their breakfast and lunch programs to serve grab-and-go meals, via a series of waivers. Many schools scrambled to completely reinvent their operations to continue feeding students who relied on free and reduced-priced meals, and buying from local farms became harder for a few reasons.

“Products that are produced sustainably or grown locally intend to come at a price premium,” Edwards-Orr said, and school foodservice departments have been faced with staggering financial shortfalls due to decreased meal participation (which results in per-meal government reimbursements), the loss of meal and a-la-carte food sales in cafeterias, plus increased costs for packaging, PPE and labor.

Local farms also tend to provide fresh, unprocessed foods, which may require labor to process (i.e. cook) and are harder to quickly package to send home. FINE’s assessment noted that “the move to grab n’ go is often opposed to the models that institutions have specifically developed to integrate local farm-impact foods (e.g. salad bars).”

These challenges were exacerbated by COVID but are nothing new. In fact, most institutions that want to make the switch to buying directly from small farms have to figure out ways to pay more for food, since processed bulk foods tend to be much cheaper (on the invoice, although they offload costs in the form of exploitation — of farmers, workers, and the environment — within the supply chain).  Institutions also often have to expand scratch cooking operations in order to buy farm-fresh ingredients, which requires more skilled labor and sometimes, improved kitchen facilities.

Success Stories

Kelli Martin Brew is the farm to school coordinator for Alachua County Public Schools, a district of 29,000 students in central Florida. Over seven years, she created a school food hub that now, in a typical year, sources about 24 percent of the district’s produce directly from 15 local farms. The district is now also participating in the Good Food Purchasing Program.

When COVID-19 first shut down schools in March, it was the start of the growing season and Brew had secured a forward contract with one nearby farm to buy 1300 pounds lettuce every week. “I had to tell the farm, ‘We can’t do this right now,’” she remembered. “Not only was the labor to produce those salads not available at that time, but supply chain disruptions had caused problems with containers. So even coming up with containers to put the salads in was problematic.”

But Brew had years of building relationships and infrastructure under her belt, and once the district began serving emergency meals for families at home, she got to work figuring out how to continue to buy from local farmers. One of the waivers the USDA issued allowed for more flexibility within the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), a program that reimburses schools that serve low-income students for daily fresh fruit and vegetable snacks. Brew was able to direct that funding towards local farms with kale, sweet potatoes, and blueberries to sell, and she began sending home bags of produce that she said resembled “a high-quality CSA box.”

“We couldn’t do the school lunch, but we were able to buy that lettuce and put it into bags for FFVP,” she said. Another local blueberry farmer had excess supply. He gave the district a lower price, and they bought five times more than they normally would have. “It was great for the farms because we bought more produce in April, May, and June then we had the entire previous year.”

In New York, American Farmland Trust’s Samantha Levy has seen similar examples of school districts sourcing a significant amount of fresh New York-grown food despite significant challenges, while switching their meal service to emergency feeding programs. “There were some heroic examples of folks during those months who continued to, just based on principles, really support their local farmers,” she said.

Before COVID-19, AFT led a coalition that was able to convince the state to adopt a generous local purchasing incentive that would reward schools that spent at least 30 percent of their lunch budget on purchasing foods from within the state by significantly raising their per-meal reimbursement rate. In other words, if they hit the threshold, they’d get more money back the following year.

During COVID, Levy held roundtable discussions and then surveyed some of the schools that were working on increasing their local purchasing. The majority of food service directors who had been making progress the year before were concerned or unsure about their ability to continue buying local food due to COVID-19’s impacts.

But another statistic was more promising: In order to claim the local purchasing credit, schools that think they’ve hit the 30 percent threshold during a given year apply for the credit after and are then reimbursed.  While 38 school districts applied to receive the credit for the 2018-2019 schools year, , 60 applied for the 2019-2020 school year. In other words, despite spring’s disruptions due to the pandemic, more schools still increased their local purchasing across the entire school year.

Now, a technicality in the state budget language may prevent those districts from receiving the additional reimbursement due to the changed structure of meal programs during COVID, and Levy is working with a coalition of groups to ask the governor to fix that language.

What Will the Future of Farm to Institution Look Like? 

That challenge is one example of how COVID-19 has exacerbated or simply highlighted the many hurdles school food service programs face in terms of sourcing better food for their students and supporting local farms.

“Whether it’s from an economic perspective or just from an administrative burden perspective, these things really limit their ability to fulfill their role as part of a local community food system,” Edwards-Orr said. Because of the way the annual bid cycle for purchasing contracts works in schools, she expects that it might take two years before schools are fully back to their normal purchasing patterns within the Good Food Purchasing Program.

But in other places, there is some evidence that farm to institution commitments are already coming back and will continue to grow. During the FINE webinar, Ayres said throughout COVID, Farm Fresh Rhode Island continued to sell to hospitals and that as of September, “colleges are coming back online.” In the meantime, the food hub pivoted to direct-to-consumer sales and leveraged several new partnerships, and in the end, they increased their annual sales and are on track to do double the business they did the year prior.

Emergency Food Goes Local

The Common Market, a local food hub based in Philadelphia with additional locations in Georgia and Texas, has found creative ways to pivot alongside its institutional customers. After its institutional sales plummeted, it quickly picked up contracts to pack emergency food boxes through a New York City feeding program and the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program. One of its customers in the Southeast, Grady Healthcare, continued to purchase food for its clinics throughout the pandemic and also set up 15 sites where the USDA Food Boxes could be distributed.

Another Common Market customer, Newark Public Schools, utilized USDA’s Fruit and Vegetable Program to direct dollars towards local purchasing, similar to Alachua County Public Schools in Florida. Since May, the district has purchased 102,000 pounds of local fruits and vegetables through The Common Market to supplement emergency food distribution efforts.

The Resilience of Local Food Systems

The key to all of these examples, everyone agrees, is existing infrastructure and relationships.

“I think what we saw in the food systems world was that where there were strong regional networks and organizations in communities working across sectors, the supply chains were more resilient and able to pivot quickly,” Edwards-Orr said. 

When I ask Brew why she thinks her district was able to maintain and even increase their support for local farms during a time when so many other schools and institutions had to abandon their commitments, she hits a similar point.

“Our director, Maria Eunice, had the foresight years ago to venture into farm to school, but over time, we had actually built a resilient local food system that was able to bounce back when trouble came,” she said. “A big part of this is the real work of farm to school — to make those connections so people see themselves not just as food service workers, farmers, chefs, eaters, truck drivers, packers, etc, but as part of a community effort that takes care of us nutritionally and economically.  We bounced back and bounced back better; it’s been good for all of us during a continuing trying time.”


Top photo by lucato/ Adobe Stock.

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