Farm to Institution New England (FINE) was founded to build a network across New England states that would support efforts to increase institutional demand (from schools, universities, hospitals, corporate dining services, etc.) for regionally produced foods while also increasing local food producers’ and processors’ capacity to meet that demand. Their broader mission is to mobilize the power of New England institutions to transform the food system.
In 2016, FINE received a USDA Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) planning grant to explore opportunities for food hubs to increase sales to regional institutions in order to: a) increase the amount of local food flowing into institutions and b) leverage institutional markets for food hub growth and long-term viability. FINE retained Karen Karp & Partners to conduct this research last year.
KK&P and FINE worked together to create criteria for the selection of food hubs and institutions to participate in the research. In the end, six established food hubs already making significant wholesale or institutional sales were chosen from across New England. Criteria for selection of participating institutions included strong demonstrated interest in buying local food, a mix of self-operated and contracted dining services, a mix of public and private institutions, and representation across FINE’s areas of institutional focus: K-12 schools, higher education, and health care.
The KK&P team conducted in-depth, on-site interviews with each of the hubs, the institutions and their food service management companies. The team also interviewed the institutions’ leading food distributors, with a focus on the distributors they depend on for supply of local food, in order to better understand the dynamics of competition and collaboration in the local food distribution landscape. KK&P also analyzed food hub’s recent profit and loss statements, product availability and pricing, and detailed category sales (by customer type and product type); considered their missions, visions for growth, and range of current programming; and mapped their distribution routes in order to identify collaboration and growth opportunities and to understand the current role of institutional markets in the hubs’ sales mix. Additionally, the research team dug into best practices of food hub networking nationwide, including trade networks, communities of practice, and other forms of collaboration that increase food hubs’ collective capacity. The six food hubs were convened for presentations and facilitated discussion at the New England Farm to Institution Summit and then again by phone in order to explore and envision the potential shape of a food hub network for New England.
“The convening of the food hubs was truly a project highlight,” Shayna Cohen, KK&P’s project lead noted. “After meeting with each of them one-on-one and delving into their operations, we knew that this was a group of doers and that they would come to the table hungry to dive into nitty gritty operational details. So our facilitation was designed to introduce them to each other and start to build relationships and trust, but also to get into specific products, routes, cross-docking opportunities, back-of-the-house needs, B2B supply chain relationships. The result was a really dynamic meeting with clear next steps and folks stepping up to lead those steps.”
Overall, because of trends in institutional food procurement and obstacles to purchasing from smaller and/or local suppliers, it became clear to all involved that while a regional food hub trade network would be of great value to the hubs, a network of food hubs geared specifically or primarily for institutional sales would not the best use of resources. As a result, KK&P developed a number of recommendations that would support the continued growth and stability of food hubs generally (individually and as a network) and contribute to their ability to increase institutional sales specifically, while also creating recommendations for FINE to work within their network of institutions and food service management companies to explore, identify and reduce structural obstacles to increasing local food procurement. The goal of each recommendation was to create a context for fruitful transactional relationships to develop— between and along the hubs, and between the hubs and the region’s institutions.
The project wrapped in the summer of 2017, but the conversation about a regional food hub network continued at the NESAWG conference in the fall and will be picked up on a national level at the Wallace Center’s National Good Food Conference this spring. Meanwhile, the hubs have remained in touch with each other and have continued exploring and experimenting with ways of trading — products, logistics and transport capacity, and information.
KK&P’s Final Recommendations
The recommendations that KK&P developed were focused on specific network functions that would serve food hubs and their capacity to serve institutional markets well. These network concepts are not mutually exclusive: implemented together, the whole would have an impact greater than the sum of its parts, yet any facet implemented alone would support the continued growth and stability of food hubs and contribute to their ability to increase institutional sales.
The recommendations made to the food hubs and FINE were to:
Develop a business-to-business trading platform to facilitate product and service transactions between New England food hubs.
Start a working group with regional representatives from food service management companies and FINE to discuss institutional purchasing needs and trends as regards local foods.
Launch a collaborative sales force for food hubs, featuring a shared, dedicated salesperson to represent an association of participating food hubs and make sales on their behalf.
Develop a food hub support network to provide technical assistance, support services, educational materials, professional networking forums, informal networking opportunities, white papers, best-practices training, marketing materials, and agricultural and food industry reports.