Helping Institutions Support Sustainable, Diverse Farms

by Lela Nargi

Published: 8/16/22, Last updated: 8/16/22

Across the United States, large public institutions have been implementing Good Food Purchasing Practices (GFPP) into the way they do business. These practices were devised by the nonprofit Center for Good Food Purchasing as a way to create “a transparent and equitable food system,” according to its website, in part by supporting local small, sustainable farmers, fair and safe working conditions, and healthy, mostly plant-centric diets. You can find GFPP embedded into the procurement strategies of school districts in San Francisco, Washington, DC and Chicago. And you can find it beginning to make its way through entire city government purchasing plans — not just for schools but also hospitals and departments of correction and aging, for example — in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

Despite its emphasis on equity, GFPP hasn’t always broadly addressed the need to support farmers who are Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BIPOC). With significantly less access than their white counterparts to land, capital and a whole host of services necessary to launch and sustain a farming business, BIPOC producers cultivate less than one percent of U.S. farmland. This despite the fact that “Strengthening support for BIPOC within the agriculture sector…can establish paths toward long-term prosperity while helping to secure the future of sustainable and resilient food systems,” reported the Union of Concerned Scientists in a 2020 policy brief.

Moving in to try to fill that gap is Heather Frambach. A supply chain coordinator who’s worked for such disparate endeavors as farm to school and meal kit company Blue Apron, she more recently co-founded SupplyChange, a consulting service that helps align corporate and institutional promises to create equitable and sustainable food supply chains with reality. While GFPP-like standards are often her jumping off point (client depending), she can take them a step further in seeking out wholesale opportunities for BIPOC farmers to get on the radar, and into the systems, of entities with massive amounts of purchasing power; to this end, she also was instrumental in creating the Just BIPOC Sourcing framework to help companies do just that. FoodPrint spoke to Frambach about her work, its challenges and its growing necessity. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe the work you do?

I’m a value chain coordinator [working on] supply chain facilitation. My primary client [now] is Kitchen Table Advisors (KTA), a nonprofit based in Northern California that provides free business advising to about 120 small- and mid-size farms, many of which are BIPOC- and women-owned and almost entirely organic. I focus on helping them sell into wholesale markets, from quick matchmaking with retailers or restaurants, to larger supply chain pilots with schools, hospitals, universities, tech companies and food banks.

How much of an overlap is there between the kind of equity you’re working for in supply chains and Good Food Purchasing Program standards?

I’m the board chair of Real Food Generation, which recently collaborated with Health Care Without Harm and the Center for Good Food Purchasing to align all of their standards. I work with all three organizations and institutions in Northern California to help them implement sourcing from local, BIPOC growers. Private tech companies don’t sign on to frameworks like GFPP, so I leverage whatever internal policies they might have. Google, for instance, signed a pledge to commit to supporting regenerative agriculture. LinkedIn has pledged 20 percent of their spend on farm to fork vendors who are local, regional and sustainable. When I set up BIPOC sourcing pilots into both companies, those internal policies were my entry point to engage their leadership and chefs.

My main constructive critique of GFPP is that while it provides a robust framework for the types of suppliers and foods an institution should source, it doesn’t give you a playbook for implementation. I got a call from the L.A. Unified School District recently and they’re really, really struggling to implement. Same thing with San Francisco Unified. This is why value chain coordination of the type that I do is in such high demand, because even when you sign on to a set of standards and commitments, it doesn’t tell you how to cultivate trust with BIPOC growers and execute on all of the nuances of working with smaller and more marginalized growers.

Where is it falling apart?

It comes down to systems mismatch. If you think about a school district, school food service directors already struggle to get their teams to put food out every day with the tiny amounts of budget that they have per student per meal. They may have very little flexibility in menu planning or scratch cooking infrastructure. They may not have a Farm to School staff person who can spend time building those relationships of trust [with local farmers] and trying to figure out how to get farmers into their system.

You can also bring farmers in through a distributor. This is what’s going on with L.A. Unified. They asked their distributor to go find smaller, more marginalized growers and the distributor doesn’t have the expertise or capacity to do that on their own. That’s where you see a breakdown.

There’s been a lot of talk recently how hard it is for small- and medium-size farmers (especially of color) to get and stay in business. What’s your take on the challenges?

I’ll speak from the point of view of California. There is increased interest from institutional and corporate buyers to engage with Black farmers in particular. However, because of the history of structural racism and exclusion, there’s not a huge Black farming community in California. The ones that are around are, very validly, very choosy about who they want to engage with. They’re mostly led by [nonprofits] Farms to Grow and the African American Farmers Coalition (AAFC).

There are some buyers that are approaching these growers with respect, such as Stanford University, which has been slowly cultivating trust in the relationship; they are going to start purchasing from Farms to Grow and AAFC over the next six weeks. [But] even if a buyer is well-intentioned, they could still do harm if the deal goes poorly. I was assisting one Black grower of specialty mushrooms who had a wholesale deal to sell 300 pounds a week to a large nonprofit. The deal went bad and now he’s about to close his business. All the values were aligned, the good intentions were there, and it just goes to show how fragile some of these sales relationships can be if they’re not designed properly.

Before you can get BIPOC farmers into GFPP and other institutional food systems, they need stable farms. Are there ways what you’re doing can help with that?

If you think of breaking [farming] into the three pillars of land, capital and markets, those are how we can move BIPOC growers into a place of equity and inclusion. There are new capital funding efforts to secure both the capital required to lease more land or to purchase it in a more permanent way. Then there’s capital needs for other types of things like equipment and packing sheds.

I work on the markets piece, which is, how do we get growers who are interested in moving into wholesale the food safety and insurance certifications they need, and build relationships in order to make sales so they can improve their cash flow? With the complicated interlocking factors of land security and debt load and poor cash flow, it’s hard for someone to dig themselves out.

One strategy that is really helpful is when a distributor is directed by their end customer to provide food safety and compliance training for farmers, as well as paperwork support. One distributor I work with has a food safety scholarship program where they support BIPOC growers by donating their expertise; they’ll do a mock audit so that growers are ready for the actual audit when it comes. Stanford had their distributor, Daylight Foods, do the same thing for a couple of Black growers that they’re working with.

You’ve also worked with a regenerative agriculture program. How does that fit into all this?

This effort came out of a sourcing pilot for Google and Sodexo. An organization called the Lexicon of Sustainability started an accelerator called REGEN1. It engaged a bunch of companies, soil scientists, farmers, advocates, academics, with the idea that since regenerative is such a squishy term, why don’t we get ahead of the new certification schemes coming out and create a market-driven set of standards? It proposed a LEED-style rating system so farmers could upload their practices — [such as] low or no tillage, less than two inches down and only one to two passes per year; applying granular fertilizer at the root zone, by hand; hand-weeding and -raking; using compost; having an organic systems or integrated pest management plan — and any verifications for those practices. It will create a portal where buyers can discover [farmers] as well as provide a hub for grants and resources and technical assistance.

I came in as an equity advocate after there was some pushback from the food justice community about whether REGEN1 was really representing BIPOC growers because they were mostly getting input from older, more established white growers. I said, why don’t we just try this out for real and run a sourcing pilot? That’s how we engaged Google, and a subsidiary of Sodexo called The Good Eating Company. We set up the pilot in May 2021, first orders went out in July 2021. Now we have a year of learnings and sales and are moving into phase two, where we are doing crop planning and six-month volume commitments. This benefits the 10 BIPOC growers currently selling into the pilot and will [potentially] allow us to add up to 40 BIPOC farms in the Salinas and Watsonville regions who can count on regular orders from these buyers and plan their production and financial health around it.

You’re in California with wildfires, Central Valley running out of water, impacts of climate change. Does switching to GFPP-like practices — especially those centering BIPOC producers — help buffer against any of this?

The stump speech I give my buyers is that there’s no better time than right now to future-proof your supply chains. Look around: Global supply chains are fracturing everywhere. The cost of freight has been artificially low for some time and the delta between prices of conventional produce being shipped from all over and local is starting to thin. Most of the growers I work with are in the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys south of Santa Cruz. That water table is quite excellent and will outlast the Central Valley, and the farmers I work with use practices that conserve water and restore carbon to the soil.

Land scarcity is a huge issue and many of the growers I work with inherited really marginal, beat-up old strawberry land that larger corporate agribusinesses were contract farming on. The soil is dry and salty and they’re putting in two to three years transitioning the land to a place where it can produce yield under an organic and regenerative system of production. They’re taking on debt. They’re not making big revenues for some time. I try to encourage buyers that I work with to reward these growers for the ecosystem services they’re providing. In 10 to 15 years, [they’re] gonna wish that they had switched to growers who are using the right practices, whose land will still be usable.

A lot of companies are starting to make pledges — we’re going to be more inclusive in our supply chains, we’re going to engage Black and brown producers of all kinds — but there’s not as much progress as I would like to see.

What will make the effort pick up steam?

Social proof. You know, one company won’t move until they see what the other one is doing. It really comes from someone showing leadership and talking about it and being open about what the learnings are. I truly feel that foodservice has a huge potential for BIPOC sourcing. Retail’s pretty saturated and the specifications are really strict. But with foodservice there are menus around seasonality, they are purchasing large volumes, they can be a little bit more flexible in general.

The barrier is that foodservice sourcing is super complex just because of how many people are in the system, with layers of leadership. At a place like Google you have individual employee cafes, individual chefs, a menu planning and procurement system that is geared towards the conventional supply chain, third-party foodservice contractors, and so on. The way in is to get all these entities to experiment with you. Once we get them to a place of moderate success, we can show that it’s replicable in all foodservice environments, and we can make these systems more friendly and inclusive to BIPOC growers.

Top photo courtesy of Heather Frambach.

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