June 23, 2011

Puget Sound Food Network Connects Locally Grown Food to Institutional Markets

Sarah Rodman, MPH

Sarah Rodman, MPH

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

June 9-12, Amanda Behrens and I journeyed to Missoula, Montana for the joint annual meetings of the Agriculture Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS), Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) and the Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN). The conference, entitled Food and Agriculture Under the Big Sky: Peoples, Partnerships, Policies, was impressively diverse in its attendees and covered subject matter.

University of Montana campus, where the conference was held

University of Montana campus, where the conference was held

For each session, conference goers had ten choices of roundtables, panels, workshops, or individual paper presentations to choose from. I was constantly torn between attending sessions on subjects I work on or learning about something totally new – Feminism, Labor and Justice or Adaptations to Climate Change? Food Choice and Identity in the Nineteenth Century or Pursuing Poultry Practicalities? While each choice meant missing many others, I was learning and impressed in every session by the presenters. They all brought with them their unique approaches to food systems issues, as theorists, students, policymakers, advocates, and on-the-ground change makers.

I was particularly drawn to one roundtable: Equity, Health & Regional Food Economies: The Power of Institutional Markets. Sourcing healthy local food to institutions has always struck me as an equally daunting and vital task in improving local food systems. I have imagined taking on that task to mean navigating complex power structures and bureaucracies, permits, vested interests of corporate food sources, distribution jargon, etc. So I was excited to hear what the speakers had to say.

Two of the three speakers were from the Puget Sound Food Network (PSFN), “a supply chain support system that combines technology and professional staff to increase the production, distribution and consumption of food and other agricultural goods produced in the region.” Emma Brewster, PSFN’s farm to community coordinator, and Ann Leason, PSFN’s operations manager, described the ways they are working hard to bring locally grown food to schools, hospitals, restaurants and homes in the Puget Sound area.

At first, PSFN tried to connect local growers to wholesale buyers using an internet forum. When that wasn’t as successful as they had hoped, they realized that their target participants (growers, food service directors, restaurateurs) were not, for the most part, people who spent their days in front of computers. With that realization they decided to change the format of their model to in-person interactions.

The Skagit Wholesale Market, which had its first season in 2010, is a collaboration between PSFN and the Skagit Valley Food Co-op. The Food Co-op provided their parking lot underpass as a site for the grassroots business-to-business market, which runs for two hours every Thursday morning during harvest season. PSFN acts as the facilitator. They provide a “fresh sheet” every week of what is in season and available at participating local farms and directions for placing pre-orders, if the buyers wish to do so.  There is no cost to participants in the market, and purchasing is worked out between growers and institutions.

The first season of the market was very successful, with over 40 unique institutional buyers (many of whom shopped regularly), including schools, restaurants and hospitals.

Testimonies from buyers and sellers both express that the desire to connect had been there, but the lack of an organized way of doing so had been a barrier. PSFN, despite a very small staff, is making great strides and breaking barriers down.

One success story of the market took place at United General Hospital in Sedro-Wolley, WA. The hospital’s food services director, Chris Johnson, began “Farm Fresh Fridays at the hospital cafeteria with the produce he was able to procure at the market. Johnson has been able to make delicious, locally sourced meals available to cafeteria-goers for an affordable price (including dessert!). Farm Fresh Fridays have been such a success that it has become a meal destination for people in the area who have no other reason to visit the hospital. All of the menu items are labeled with the farms from which the ingredients were sourced.

The Skagit Wholesale Market is only one way that PSFN is getting locally produced food to regional institutions. After a successful three week pilot market last season, PSFN has announced this week that a more permanent wholesale market will take place on Wednesday mornings in Seattle. In addition to the markets, Puget Sound Food Network is connecting local growers to childcare centers and getting their food into home delivered meals through PSFN’s HEAL project.

Though Emma and Ann openly acknowledge the general and case-by-case challenges they have battled in creating systems to facilitate distribution, it was clear that PSFN’s staff have taken the challenges head on. Those of us on the academic end of food system improvement efforts can justify and call for the changes we’d like to see in institutional buying habits. But without folks like the ones at PSFN who are willing to get their hands dirty and trial-and-error their way into actual progress, moving forward would be impossible!

PSFN will be collecting qualitative data on their projects in the future and has plans for releasing reports on what they have been doing. But, as Emma reminded me, since each region is unique in its needs and resources, there is no one-size-fits-all model in getting local food to institutional markets. Still, I hope others hoping to do similar work can at least gain from PSFN’s lessons learned and overall enthusiasm for the task at hand.

The Food and Agriculture Under the Big Sky conference was full of individuals and groups who are approaching our current challenges in food and agriculture in different and new ways.  Emma and Ann were only two of several presenters whose work I hope to watch and interact with in the future. I look forward to next year’s conference, though it will be hard to beat Missoula as a location!

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