This is the first in a series of essays related to an ongoing research project. The research is focused upon developing a Farm-To-Institution distribution program in New York State. A more detailed description of this work can be found under Ongoing Research, in the Research section of this site.
During a recent conversation with Christina Grace, of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM), my research questions prompted her to mention the common food service providers of hospitals and prisons. In many cases, these institutions are serviced by providers like Aramark, Sodexo, and Chartwells. The usuals. Of course they are, yet it wasn’t something I’d thought about. Christina’s was the first interview Sam and I had done, in our work concerning farm-to-hospital and farm-to-prison distribution.
My first reaction was to want to whip our project clear around and embark again in the opposite direction.
NYU works with Aramark, as do many public and private universities and colleges across the country. In the early stages of our ongoing efforts to change the food sources in our school dining halls, Sam and I and many students, primarily organized by the Real Food Challenge, learned how to read our food service provider’s contracts. We may have primarily looked for the date on which the contracts would end, but many students – particularly those from large schools like NYU – learned how to negotiate, to wade through the bureaucracy, to talk to company representatives about releasing their purchasing data, to discuss whether the company executives might approve sourcing from a small distributor that might feed one ingredient to one college, rather than the entire kitchen to the entire nation. The results were not negligible – NYU now has a pilot local and organic dining hall, fair trade coffee in all seven dining halls, and Aramark may eventually work with the New York farmers markets. But working towards these changes felt mildly like convincing Wal-Mart to sell Organic, or Starbucks to buy Fair Trade. Aramark would certainly strategically adjust, but their heart would never be in it.
Now, in the initial stages of our new project, Sam and I have focused upon learning from alternative Farm-to-Institution distribution programs around the country, with the ultimate goal of writing a proposal (for a policy, or an organization, or a business) that will create a Farm-to-Institution program in New York State, particularly to service hospitals and prisons. I have been excited to think of this as very different from our work with our individual universities – a different constituency, a different structure, a different (more invisible) need, a different sort of potential for change. And so when I heard Aramark, I wasn’t excited. I had wanted to do something more creative than propose the same changes in a different contract.
The other interesting aspect of the conversation with Christina was that although she had a lot to say, she switched her focus early on to her work with public schools. She spoke of the numerous initiatives of the School Food program, of the sliced apples and the carrot coins, the yogurt, and the school gardens. There are certainly scattered projects across the country addressing hospitals, and prisons, and NYSDAM is looking at starting something with hospitals in New York, but there’s nothing on the ground yet. The School Food program, after all, is an ongoing struggle, and it only started in 2002. But it was disappointing to hear that there haven’t been more efforts to serve other institutions.
It took two days for the underlying conversation to rise above my superficial discontent. I’ve never heard much about patients and prisoners getting access to local, organic, fresh, healthy foods in New York. That was part of my motivation for this project. But I hadn’t realized what an integral puzzle piece they were in the food movement; how perfectly, predictably, they are a part of the big picture. New York policy has really only acted upon concern for school children. The 2002 school food legislation demands that, “The State Education Department should collect information from schools and other educational institutions that are interested in purchasing New York farm products and share that information with interested farmers and farm organizations across the State….The schools would then be notified by the State of the availability of the products.”
This bill was and is a wonderful step in the right direction, but it significantly ignores the interconnectedness of all major institutions, considering the vast number of meals they must provide, the few providers they source from, the purchasing power they possess together, and the potential benefit of a policy like that of 2002 for the State Departments of Education, of Health, and of Correctional Services – all together! This sort of demand would no longer clamber up the big bad supply chains, reaching for a chance to make a difference. This sort of demand would be a Giant for those beanstalks. A new distribution system would have to grow to serve it, stronger, and closer to the ground.
The idea that specific institutions can band together to make their demands heard is not a new one. So far, primarily, public schools have come together with public schools, and universities with universities, to demand access to the local products that are available. These focused efforts have not been easy nor yet “successful,” and it may feel as though broadening their focus will only complicate and slow the progress that has already been made. This may be true. But as the force behind a movement that claims a sort of holistic integrity, the community working to create a more sustainable food system cannot neglect the state of our health care system nor ignore the industries that control our prisons. These are the trademarks of an era we have in fact elected to end, but now it is our job to connect ALL the dots.