Farm to Institution New England (FINE)
August 2020 Impact Assessment
Farm to Institution New England is a six-state network of nonprofit, public and private entities working together to transform our food system by increasing the amount of good, local food served in our region’s schools, hospitals, colleges and other institutions. The FINE network consists of non-profit organizations, government agencies, institutions, foundations, farms, food distributors, food processors, food service operators and others.
Impacts of COVID-19
- Shifting role of institutions and emphasis on cross-sector communications: Amidst closures and limited capacity, Institutions are shifting their roles to serve their communities in new ways. Colleges are preparing meals for hospital staff, K-12 schools are providing (and sometimes distributing) meals to whole families, hospitals are setting up pop-up grocery stores to provide local food to their staff. The importance of collaboration across the food system has also been highlighted.
- Emphasis on local relationships: Those institutions who have existing relationships with local producers have been able to rely on those markets for products when supply chains were disrupted. Some institutions have suggested that without the traditional dining hall experience, they are doubling down on the quality of the products served, including serving more local food.
- Exposing innovations and inefficiencies in the food system: Many food businesses have been able to pivot and adopt innovative solutions to get food to people. However, the pandemic has also shown a light on where there are weaknesses. Discussion around traceability and transparency is coming to the forefront and will hopefully lead to more flexible supply chains that can combat disruption in the future.
- The strain of the unknown: The general unknown that institutions are facing makes planning menus, procuring food, and engaging in other farm to institution activities very challenging. Schools, colleges, and hospitals have had to pivot numerous times over the last several months and have significantly reduced or paused their dining operations (resulting in staff furloughs, surplus food, and disrupted supply chains) as stay at home orders were enforced, campuses closed, and health care facilities reduced visitation. For many institutions who were already under financial strain, this uncertainty will have a huge impact that will inevitably trickle down to food (especially local food) budgets. Additionally, the move to grab n’ go is often opposed to the models that institutions have specifically developed to integrate local farm-impact foods (e.g., salad bars).
- Waste and food safety: Food and packaging waste has been a challenge throughout the pandemic. As institutions have shifted towards grab n’ go options to meet social distancing requirements and protect their staff and constituents, the amount of single use packaging has increased. This will likely continue into the foreseeable future and many institutions are working hard to figure out how to maintain safety protocols without undoing years of work to reduce their environmental footprint.
- Food access: Many people rely on institutions for at least one daily meal (in New England we know that at least a quarter of the population spends time in a school, college, or hospital everyday). Closures are challenging institutions to establish accessible models of food distribution (grab n’ go, delivery, pick up sites) while still providing healthy, fresh foods to people who need it most. Across the country many correctional facilities have reduced food standards by serving only cold foods, no fruits or vegetables, and limiting food service to only two meals a day.
Obstacles to Sector Response
- Environmental sustainability: The need to balance environmental sustainability efforts with staff/consumer safety and financials (increase in to go options means more packaging which in turn increases both waste and toxins in food system) Staff capacity and physical space constraints: Institutions face labor shortages while also needing additional capacity to support new models of food distribution. For example, for K-12 schools serving students in-person and virtually this fall, this means two different food service models.
- More physical space is required to serve constituents safely (greater distance in lines and between eaters at tables) which limits the number of people served in each location. Many colleges are serving grab n’ go meals at multiple sites to maintain social distance requirements which requires more staff to prep and serve. When facilities cannot safely space eaters out, they are often required to eat outside of communal spaces. For the corrections sector, physical space constraints means more isolated eating for incarcerated people who are restricted to dorms, cells, pods, or units. Work release programs (including food processing programs) have also been cancelled in many facilities due to lack of space to safely work.
- Lack of clear information on health and safety: Institutions are searching for clear guidance and recommendations but not easily finding them. The pace at which things are changing coupled with the different demands of different institutions (schools, hospitals, colleges) and their varying models (size, management, location), makes it very hard to share best practices. Policies around visas and immigration: Having an effect on labor, student populations, and supply chains
Successful Marketing Adaptations in Response to COVID-19
There has been a general shift across the farm to institution supply chain to adopt digital solutions for moving and ordering food. Ordering platforms/apps like GrubHub or Boost are popping up on college campuses to allow students to order food ahead of time and thus limit their time spent in close proximity to others. Many farmers who previously relied on institutional markets adopted online ordering systems for directly connecting to consumers. Food hubs and distributors who primarily service food service customers have shifted to support consumers through direct delivery, retail shopping at warehouses, CSA style food boxes and more. Institutions are also serving their constituents through creative programs like prepared meal packs, CSAs, and crock pot to go meals.These adaptations have caused a lot of quick shifts around processing, packaging, and distribution to ensure that food is getting to people where and how they need it.
Economic Impact on Sector
- Institutions: Institutional dining programs have largely seen decreases in sales due to closures, limited capacity, or shifting models. Additional costs from PPE, thought difficult to measure the impact of at this point, are also be incurred. Depending on the sector, dining programs may be facing layoffs/furloughs while others are facing labor shortages. Students face financial implications due to lack of on-campus employment which is often associated with reduced tuition, in addition to wages. Results from a survey of colleges across the country is currently being analyzed to better understand the financial impact on dining service programs.
- Processors and distributors: processors and distributors are investing in new processing equipment to meet demands for consumer/retail packaging and volume (requires investment of time, money, space).
- Farms: The impact on farms who rely on institutional markets is not fully understood yet. At the beginning of the pandemic when farms began redirecting their surplus towards direct sales, retail, or food banks/pantries, implications could be seen on price, packaging, business models, and distribution. Specific agriculture sectors like dairy were hit especially hard (In New England, half of all milk that is produced is turned into products for food service and schools and exports account for an additional 15% of the national milk market (New England Dairy). On the other hand, some farms who successfully shifted to direct to consumer channels have seen an uptick in business during the pandemic due to an increased interest and need from consumers looking for food in their community.
Impact on Sector Members
- Students (both college and K-12) who face food insecurity and rely on school meals for nutritious food are more likely to be negatively impacted by campus closures or remote dining options. We know that food insecurity disproportionately impacts certain populations including Black and Hispanic communities. Schools that shifted to grab n’ go models or pick-up/delivery sites have had to adapt to their community’s needs to make sure that students without cars or whose parent work during pick up times could still access food options.
- On college campuses, the students who remained on campus for various reasons (including international students, and students without a safe place to relocate) have been subject to the takeout options provided for them on campus. We also know that incarcerated people have largely suffered from a decrease in quality of food in correctional facilities.
Desired Data and Technical Assistance
- Shared metrics to track impact
- data on availability, processing, and distribution to better support matchmaking and redirection of food
- data on most successful models for feeding food insecure students during COVID
- food systems maps that outline the flow of food across different supply chains
- data on correctional facility food service
- Guidance around safety and health protocols
- guidance around how to shift to grab n’ go models while maintaining sustainability goals
- Long term food distribution models (emergency and otherwise) beyond this crisis
- Contract support (how can we think about breaking down big contracts to allow institutions to diversify and thus face less disruption in a crisis)
- Establishing relationships with local producers pre-crisis
- guidance around how technology can play a role in the decentralization of how food is produced, processed, moved, and prepared.
Contact Information for FINE:
Hannah Leighton Hannah@farmtoinstitution.org