Our network has spoken! Key Takeaways from our 2020 Stakeholder Survey

Hannah Leighton, Director of Research and Evaluation

FINE surveys our stakeholders every 18 months to find out what the New England farm to institution network needs - and how we can better serve them.

We found four key takeaways:

  1. The network of farm to institution stakeholders is expanding and deepening.
  2. FINE has a lot of work to do before we are the inclusive organization we need to be.
  3. More than half of respondents work for or on behalf of an institution. A quarter of them are responsible for purchasing food.
  4. Stakeholders want more support around funding, stakeholder awareness, and supply chain logistics.

By sharing these key takeaways, we intend to not only be more transparent, but to increase our accountability to you, our stakeholders. We invite you into an open and ongoing dialogue about our analysis and the subsequent actions we plan to take as an organization. Note that the responses are representative of only a subset of the farm to institution network in New England, and were collected prior to COVID-19.

Key Takeaways from the 2020 Stakeholder Survey:

1. The network of farm to institution stakeholders is expanding and deepening

In 2020, we saw an increase in stakeholders who are new or not yet involved with FINE as well as an increase in stakeholders who do not yet consider themselves involved in farm to institution (FTI) work at all. At the same time, we also saw an increase in stakeholders who consider FTI work as their main focus, suggesting that the network of those doing this work is growing in both breadth and depth. 

As our network expands, we recognize the need for resources and support that can assist those at various points in their FTI journey. Our resource database has over 300 resources in it ranging from FTI 101 fact sheets to in-depth toolkits for those developing contracts. We are exploring ways to make our “just getting started” resources more available to those new to FTI and we are always looking for ways to lift up and share the work of those who are leading the way for others. 

Respondents told us that being involved with FINE is most likely to increase

  1. their knowledge about the impacts of farm to institution work, 
  2. their network of people doing this work, and 
  3. their connection with others in their own sector.  

Respondents told us that being involved with FINE is less likely to increase

  1. knowledge about funding opportunities, 
  2. the diversity of their own network, and 
  3. their capacity to undertake programming. 


FINE is where we learn, where we share and where we can find inspiration. Making personal connections is where we start to make change...The 2019 conference helped me personally extend my network and help to make connections for my organization that resulted in increased sales on behalf of farmers and food producers.

- 2020 Stakeholder Survey Respondent

2. We have a lot of work to do before we are the inclusive, representative, equitable organization and network we need to be 

Our survey respondents and event participants do not reflect the full diversity of the FTI network, particularly in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. This signals a need for FINE to work on the inclusivity and diversity of our programs and stakeholder engagement. We recognize that our food system was built to and continues to oppress many Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, immigrant, and other marginalized communities, including women, LGBTQ+, and differently abled individuals. FINE is committed to breaking these inequities down and making sure that our network is one that supports the work and lives of all New Englanders and contributes to a just and equitable food system. We are actively working to make our programs, events, communications, staff, and advisory groups aligned with the food system we all want to see. We are thankful to those who are working with us towards these goals. You can read more about our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, in our DEI statement

The biggest challenge for me is effective collaboration that actually advances equity and the alarming lack of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color at the table. The FINE summit was great, but it was woefully white and not representative of the people most marginalized by the food system. I would like to see FINE direct funding to supporting POC-orgs and incorporating more POC speakers into the program to speak about their work and how folks in the room can be effective allies.

- 2020 Stakeholder Survey Respondent

3. More than half of respondents work for or on behalf of an institution. A quarter of them are responsible for purchasing food

Institutions in New England have the opportunity to leverage their purchasing power to make big impacts in the region. Research done before the pandemic shows that schools, hospitals, and colleges across the region spend an estimated $1 billion annually on food and beverage. When we talk about farm to institution, we often talk about using those dollars to invest in regional, sustainable, fair food that can positively influence the local economy, community, and environment. 

The largest number of respondents indicated they work for a non-profit or college (followed by K-12 school and farmer/producer), and ¼ of respondents reported being responsible for purchasing food. More than half of respondents reported working for or on behalf of an institution.

While procurement is an important part of the conversation, stakeholders are making an impact beyond purchasing food. The most frequently mentioned activities that stakeholders participate in are educating students and developing curricula, doing communications and marketing around FTI, tracking and measuring local procurement, advocating for change within institutions, and buying local food for farm to institution programs.  

COVID-19 has highlighted the important role that institutions play as anchors in their communities. FINE is sharing stories about and resources related to institutions leveraging their infrastructure and community relationships to feed people and support the regional food system.  We are fostering cross-sector partnerships and focusing on the role institutions play, not just as buyers, but as conveners, aggregators, educators, transporters, warehouse storage, advocates, and more.

4. Stakeholders want more support around funding, stakeholder awareness, and supply chain logistics

We asked stakeholders about the biggest challenges they face in their FTI work. They responded with a wide range of topics including navigating contracts, consolidation in the supply chain, cost of labor, systemic racism, lack of diversity and equity, finding champions, community engagement, lack of transparent tracking systems, and more. We thematically coded responses into 11 categories and found that the most frequently mentioned challenges could be categorized as:

  1. funding / financials
  2. stakeholder awareness / commitment
  3. supply chain logistics

These responses were given prior to the start of the pandemic and the current uprisings around systemic racism and racial injustice in the U.S. and our food system. While we know that many of these challenges have been exacerbated over the last seven months, it is also possible that different issues would be emphasized and new challenges may be mentioned if this survey were being administered now. 

FINE is always working to better understand what additional activities and programs the FTI network in New England can use. Stakeholders mentioned that their work would benefit from activities around local food supply chain development (e.g., programming for distributors interested in providing increased local foods to institutions), training and/or development on building successful food systems events, and resources/activities that amplify funding opportunities. 

[We are] hitting a plateau with local sourcing... FINE can keep us aware of grant opportunities, advocate for more food hubs / distribution networks to streamline deliveries, etc.

- 2020 Stakeholder Survey Respondent

We know that amplifying funding opportunities is a critical need for the network and we plan to use our upcoming Summit to make space for conversation and matchmaking between funders and those working across the sector. 

FINE’s core network consists of institutions and nonprofits working in this space. Others, such as producers and supply chain businesses, connect with us and enter the network to gain more access to the core network stakeholders. A more strategic approach to these partnerships, whether from us or from those doing supply chain work (hubs, distributors, processors, other supply chain facilitators), can help connect local supply chains more effectively to institutional buyers.

What’s next? 

We are incredibly thankful to everyone who filled out the survey this year and in years past. Your feedback is critical to our programmatic and strategic planning. In addition to the activities listed above, here's what's next:

  • Our staff is following up with respondents who offered actionable suggestions for FINE.
  • Together with our Network Advisory Council, we will adjust FINE programming to meet these needs.
  • We invite YOU to join us! Help us improve our program delivery, network support, and evaluation methods.

About the Survey 

This annual survey is designed to help FINE better understand and serve our stakeholders. It asks questions about involvement with our organization and farm to institution activity in general, stakeholder challenges, stories, resources, and more. Our 2020 survey was in the field from January 5th to February 21st and garnered 177 responses. Please note that all responses were collected before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The responses gleaned from this survey are representative of only a subset of the FTI network in New England. We combine these results with a broader constellation of stakeholder feedback that includes 1:1 conversations, email communications, event and webinar surveys, and more. If you have any questions or comments, please contact Hannah Leighton at hannah@farmtoinstitution.org