The result of a three-year long collaborative study on the potential of institutional procurement in New Orleans was recently released by Propeller, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that supports social and environmental entrepreneurs; the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee; and the Wallace Center at Winrock International, a nonprofit organization working on agriculture, environment, and social development projects. The report, Farm to Institution New Orleans: Feasibility and Pilot Study, analyzes the pathways towards a more equitable, resilient local food economy.
Conducted with local food system stakeholders, the report outlines the opportunities and challenges of each step of the institutional food value chain. The report intends to increase the involvement of small and medium-sized producers in institutional procurement with attention to farmers of color who continue to face lingering impacts of systemic racial inequalities and financial exclusion.
Kristine Creveling, Senior Food Program Manager at Propeller, spoke to Food Tank about the report. “It’s about holding our institutions accountable for changing purchasing policies to be for the common good” and building a values-based food system that represents and supports the same community members who use local institutions. The “common good” Kristine explains, includes “food that is locally produced, healthier for customers, while also being environmentally and economically sound.”
Institutional procurement is the process through which large institutions, such as hospitals, schools, convention centers, and food banks, buy the food they serve. The food value chain supporting institutions is often long, starting with large-scale producers. The report finds “nearly all of the interviewed institutions are working with national or international food service management companies … [which] often exclude small-scale local producers,” despite their regional prevalence and Louisiana’s status as an agricultural state.
In New Orleans, the food value chains for the institutions that were interviewed were strikingly similar. All of the institutions receive their food from the same single produce distributor and the same large-scale national or international food service management companies. “Opportunities for small- and medium-sized farmers to sell to New Orleans buyers who can purchase consistently and in bulk were rare,” the report says. However, all institutions interviewed reported excitement about expanding their local procurement potential.
The report’s authors see many benefits in shifting to a food system that “values equity, environmental and economic sustainability, food quality, and mutually beneficial business relationships.” And they have found that this can be done by creating opportunities to better include small, local farms—particularly those owned by people of color and women—in institutional food needs. In the food system examined in the report, “shifting to 20 percent local procurement by just three New Orleans anchor institutions has the potential to generate over US$2 million dollars in annual economic output for the New Orleans economy.”
Institutional procurement from local farms benefits communities beyond the farm, according to the report. “Revenues [from local sourcing] are reinvested in the community: studies estimate that each dollar spent on local food can recirculate as much as US$1.3- $2.6 back into a local economy.”
The report notes that the United States’ long history of racism in its legal systems and institutions has impacted farmers of color and their abilities to own and inherit land, access financial support to start and develop farms, and receive government funding. “Black farmers receive 16–33 percent of the benefits that other farmers receive from U.S. Department of Agriculture crop subsidy programs.” Lack of funding often prevents farmers from developing their businesses, leading to their exclusion from institutional contracts and hindering the profitability of their farms. “To increase production to the level that institutions need will require high levels of upfront investment, and that means a lot of financial risk that, unfortunately, lies exclusively with the farmer,” Creveling tells Food Tank.
Other major challenges were found in meeting institutional food demands, particularly attaining food safety certifications and meeting high demand. Institutions and food service management companies believe that small farmers are not able to produce enough quality produce regularly. Smaller farmers are hesitant to invest in food safety certifications without a prior contract and are often unsure of how to attain certification. Creveling says that “if multiple small scale farms can coordinate their production, and aggregate their product, this significantly diminishes their financial risk.”
The potential power of institutional procurement could influence the food system at large, the authors believe. By leveraging the purchasing power of large institutions to demand better representation of their local, small, and medium farmers of color or female-run farms from their distributors and food service management companies, local economies will grow. Small farmers would receive multi-year contracts through institutions that offer new opportunities for planned investment and growth of farms. As smaller farms’ production potential develops and the values-based food system is strengthened, this model will increase the visibility of local procurement efforts enhancing the connections of institutions to the communities they serve.
Creveling encourages institutional patrons to ask for change. “Ask for local! Organize through student organizations or patient advocacy groups for better quality and locally procured food. Ask for more transparency on where the food comes from.”