Farm-to-Institution: Creating Healthy Communities, Economic Opportunity, and a Thriving Future for Local Agriculture

Recently, Fletcher Allen won Healthcare Without Harm’s “Sustainable Food Procurement Award” for the work they do to source local, sustainably produced ingredients for the more than 2 million meals the institution serves each year. The hospital spends more than 37% of its food budget with Vermont producers annually – an impressive $1.5 million is spent on food grown or raised right here in our state.

This success story is a shining example of the potential created by connecting producers with local institutions. In Vermont today, farmers are increasingly working directly with hospitals, schools, workplaces, and higher-education to supply healthy, local foods. The economic impact to farmers can be sizable, and the benefits to the overall health of the community are significant. 

Local institutions have tremendous power, and in my opinion, a responsibility, to create economic opportunity by buying from local farmers. Consumers are increasingly interested in the origins of their food, and by offering local options, institutions have an opportunity to enhance their reputation for social responsibility among the customers, employees, and students they serve.

Over the past two years, the Agency of Agriculture has played a leadership role in a state-wide Farm-to-Institution initiative. We’ve created a CSA program for state employees, enabling them to sign up directly with farmers who will drop off their weekly delivery at state office buildings. We’ve held workshops for farmers interested in learning how to scale-up to institutional sales. And we’ve created opportunities for farmers to connect directly with institutional buyers, including Sodexo, a commercial food service provider serving 34,000 meals daily in Vermont. These priorities align well with the Farm to Plate 10-Year Strategic Plan for Vermont’s Food System which identifies health care supported agriculture goals of: increased local food sourcing by institutions, developing strategic partnerships to allow food producers access to larger scale markets, and measuring local food consumption data for use in tracking Vermont’s food system progress.

A success story like Fletcher Allen’s does not happen overnight. Fletcher Allen’s transformation began slowly, but deliberately. Under the direction of Nutrition Services Director Diane Imrie, the hospital took the first step in 2006. At that time, Fletcher Allen became one of a handful of health care organizations across the nation to sign the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, with the national organization Health Care Without Harm, to improve the health of patients, the community, and the environment.

There was a learning curve, from figuring out the finances, to changing food preparation practices, to garnering buy-in from boards and staff. It took more time to source foods and develop relationships with farmers and producers than it did to buy everything from one industrial vendor.

All that effort has paid off: sales across Fletcher Allen’s cafes and cafeterias have been up every year since 2006. Their commitment to sourcing local, fresh food and superior culinary expression has gained Fletcher Allen a reputation of being one of Burlington’s most desirable eating destinations.

And Fletcher Allen isn’t alone. Across the state, schools are serving local foods in their cafeterias, as part of Farm to School programming. Our colleges and universities and many local employers are taking strides to incorporate more local foods in their cafeterias. Ten of Vermont’s hospitals, as well as Wake Robin Senior Living Community in Shelburne, have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge validating their commitment to increasing local and sustainable food purchases.

I commend Fletcher Allen, and all the local institutions making similar strides, on their efforts. Farm-to-Institution partnerships are a win for all the stakeholders. As we look towards the future, I envision a Vermont food system in which producers and institutions work together seamlessly to fill the nutrition needs of a community, to the benefit of all involved.