Institutional food service buyers at a wide range of scale – from group homes and summer feeding programs, to colleges and hospitals – are looking to purchase more “locally-grown” food in New York, especially fresh and minimally-processed fruits and vegetables, but also meat and dairy. To capitalize on the demand from institutions, farmers need to understand product selection, processing, packaging, food safety and other requirements of schools, government agencies and food service management companies. Equally as important, growers need to establish relationships with end buyers, distributors, processors, new aggregator-entrepreneurs and food hubs.
The Farm to Institution Market Readiness Training program ran from 2015 to 2019 and trained Extension educators and agri-service providers to help farmers assess the opportunities for sales to institutions, and identify the changes required in their production and management systems. They gained the knowledge and tools to communicate to farmers the opportunity in institutional markets, how to build relationships with buyers in the supply chain in their region as well as at the New York State level, and how they can provide ongoing assistance to growers.
The training consisted of a mix of presentations and experiential learning: 1) webinars at the start of the project set the stage with an overview of local food buying trends in the institutional markets and general farm to institution information; 2) trainees visited institutions in their home regions and interviewed buyers to identify “best supplier practices” in key business functions, and the specific requirements of their institutions; and 3) a two-day interactive training conference in January 2016: the first day was in a classroom setting with presentations and discussions around the new Food Service Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations, and on the second day group tours of local institutions.
During 2016 and 2017, 12 project-trained Market Readiness trainers organized 10 farm food safety training workshops, which FINYS promoted to growers. The agri-service providers offered Farm to Institution Market Readiness workshops to growers which included a buyers’ panel, tours or other opportunities to meet institutional buyers.
Farm to Institution Market Readiness Training was funded by the Professional Development Program of Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education.