The movement to promote organic, natural, and local foods has inarguably been driven by consumers. Passionate eaters in search of a fresh and healthy lifestyle have teamed with small scale farmers (or in some cases, become farmers themselves) in order to meet their own demand. Over the course of a few decades, this vanguard has blossomed into a multi-billion-dollar market segment, with hundreds of farms and value-added cooperatives, farmers markets, and global corporations—vying for its business.
There’s just one problem with this picture. Roughly half of the food consumed in the country isn’t purchased by individuals, but by institutions. Moreover, many of these institutions, such as public schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and the like, serve populations in dire need of healthy and nutritious food.
Enter: the farm to cafeteria movement. It’s a loose coalition of farmers, middle-men, schools, hospitals, policy-makers—and impassioned activists—who are working together to change the way that institutions source and purchase the ingredients for their food offerings.
The cornerstone of the movement is the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, which occurs every two years in a different U.S. host city, and is hosted by the National Farm to School Network (NFSN). The eighth conference was held this past June in Madison, Wisconsin, and gathered more than 1,000 food service professionals, farmers, educators, policy makers, entrepreneurs, students and youth leaders, representatives from non-profits, and public health professionals for a series of workshops, presentations, and other activities.
The conference covered a dizzying array of subjects designed for virtually every level of participation in the farm to cafeteria movement. The sessions were divided into 12 overarching topics, which ranged from practical matters such as institutional procurement and school garden planning, to strategic sessions exploring equity and justice, building the movement, and advocating for change. Under these broad topics were individual in-depth workshops and “lightning talks,” which offered a brief five-minute look at a given subject. Other conference activities included keynote addresses (including a video greeting from Michelle Obama), tours of local projects in the Madison area, and structured events to promote networking among regional players in attendance.
Thanks to a robust network of farm to cafeteria projects, Madison was an ideal location for this year’s conference, according to Vanessa Herald, who serves as a farm to school outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and leads NFSN’s Great Lakes regional division. The city was one of a handful who answered the NFSN’s request for proposals (RFP) for hosting the conference. “A key group of Wisconsin farm to school partners worked together on the RFP and highlighted the strong partnership and innovative farm to cafeteria work that is taking place in Wisconsin,” Herald says. UW-Madison and the local convention and visitors’ bureau also lent their support to the event.
Given the broad array of interests with specialized needs and challenges, the theme of this year’s conference—Moving Forward Together—was a fitting one, says Herald. “That’s the key takeaway for action. How can we join forces between all the different farm to cafeteria movements? How can we partner to make efforts stronger? How can we unite to tell our story better? How can we work together to impact policy change most effectively?”
Answering these questions will be key as the burgeoning farm to cafeteria movement charts the same success curve as the farm to table movement.
Organic Valley is committed to promoting and growing local food systems and is proud to support the National Farm to School Network’s work and educational events.