Farm to Institution New England (FINE) is a six-state cross-sector network backbone organization working to mobilize the power of institutions to transform the food system. For more than a decade we have worked to provide coordination, technical assistance, and capacity building by conducting research, fostering connections, and catalyzing initiatives to advance our mission. We see tremendous opportunity in the Regional Food Business Centers (Centers) to help strengthen the regional food systems in New England and beyond. We are interested in supporting other entities that are applying to lead Centers as informal advisors or active partners, in both the application and implementation process. (More about the Regional Food Business Centers at the bottom.)
Following are some recommendations for applicants based on our experience working in the New England food system and with national farm to institution partnerships, as well as possible roles that we could serve in support of Regional Food Business Center leaders.
How Regional Food Business Center applications can deliver on regional food system needs
FINE believes Centers will be most powerful if they:
- Understand and deliver on community food system needs, as identified by the communities within the region. The Centers should involve those who are the intended beneficiaries of the Center efforts, including: small to medium-sized farm and food businesses, community food organizations, BIPOC led organizations, food policy councils, state food system leads, and regional food systems networks. These organizations understand regional food system complexity, needs, and weaknesses. They are also familiar with existing resources, what strategies have been tried before, and which have the greatest opportunity for success. Tapping into the knowledge of these groups in the planning and evaluation processes as well as funding them to help execute those plans will help meet the overarching goals set by the USDA for these Centers.
- Address racial, wealth, gender, and other inequities by understanding and correcting historical and current systems that have excluded and harmed individuals and communities.
- Build upon existing resources and local community-led knowledge, through a coordinated network of TA providers, to provide the required technical assistance to food and farm businesses.
- Work in alignment with other Centers and partners to set goals, measure progress, reach intended impact, and avoid unintended consequences. Evaluation must be a priority from the outset, incorporating principles of equity, qualitative and quantitative data collection, and shared metrics. Evaluation should leverage the expertise of the communities in each region to make decisions about needs and how to measure effectiveness.
- Leverage the power of institutions - which already play an important and complex role in our communities - to improve our regional food system. Institutions are significant food buyers whose choices influence all other parts of the food supply chain and food system - in New England alone, they feed close to a quarter of the population, including some of the most vulnerable populations (children, elderly, ill and infirm, incarcerated). Institutions educate and inform, are significant investors in communities and community food systems, employ many food systems workers, and help create food systems jobs outside the institutions as well.
- Embody the values that so many food system change-makers have come to agree upon, including: Equity and Justice, Transparency, and Collaboration.
How FINE can help
- FINE will not take a lead role on an application, but is eager and available to help applicants and partnerships in the following ways:
- Provide or connect organizations to available data on various institutional sectors
- Support or inform evaluation processes that serve the needs of the partnership, region, and the broader food system, including guidance on equitable evaluation strategies and shared metrics for farm-level, community-level, and other types of impact
- Provide existing resources to support technical assistance (FINE has more than 400 farm to institution resources in our free, online database)
- Connect to existing technical assistance and capacity building for farm and food businesses
- Help partners connect to institutional staff including dining operators, administrators, faculty, staff, and students
- Convene partners and make connections across partnerships
- Encourage transparency and information-sharing through communications about the RFA, partnerships, available resources, food systems needs, and more
- Offer knowledge of and experience with government agencies, grants, etc.
- Connect regional evaluation methods to national conversations around shared metrics and equitable evaluation practices.
- Utilize our robust suite of communication tools and events to highlight progress and facilitate engagement of partners related to Center efforts.
FINE brings deep knowledge and connections throughout New England. We also have a broad reach across regions and nationally through our work on shared metrics and evaluation, the biennial Farm to Institution Summit, and food systems research. Our partners and networks include the National Farm to Institution Metrics Collaborative, Food Systems Leadership Network, sector groups such as the Farm & Sea to Campus Network and National Farm to School Network, and the Local Food Response to COVID cooperative agreement. FINE also supports commodity-focused groups and projects including dairy, seafood, grains, and meat.
For more information, or to find out how FINE can support your partnership, please contact Peter Allison, Executive Director, at [email protected].
About the USDA RFA for Regional Food Business Centers
The United States Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA AMS) is soliciting proposals for organizations, working in regional partnerships, to develop and manage Regional Food Business Centers (Centers). According to the USDA, these Centers will “serve as the cornerstone of USDA’s development of local and regional supply chains.” Up to $360M will be available through cooperative agreements, to support six or more Centers.
These Centers will support producers by providing localized assistance to access local and regional supply chains, including linking producers to wholesalers and distributors. They will provide technical assistance needed to access new markets, access to federal, state, and local resources, and will assist small- and mid-sized producers in overcoming barriers to market access, with a focus on underserved farmers, ranchers, and food businesses. The Centers will have three main responsibilities: coordination, technical assistance, and capacity building. More about the USDA Regional Food Business Centers