Charlene Andersen

Good food for hospitals, good business for farmers

By Charlene Andersen

Farmers and food producers wanting to sell to local institutions can start by building relationships with those institutions' food buyers and chefs.

New England institutions spend an estimated $1 billion each year on food, according to a recent report by Farm to Institution New England.

That figure represents a significant and largely untapped market for New Hampshire's farmers and food producers. Selling to this market could create growth opportunities and a more-diverse customer base for local food and agriculture businesses.

Bob Perkins of Autumn View Farm in Pittsfield

Farm to Healthcare efforts are gaining ground across the nation as food-service directors try to meet consumer demand for fresh, local, sustainably grown food. N.H. hospitals such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock are increasing the local food in their cafeteria offerings. Others, including Concord Hospital, go a step further by also hosting on-site farmers markets or employee Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Farmers and food producers who want to sell to institutional customers face two barriers. The first is time. Identifying the food buyer in an organization, then connecting with them in a way that helps them understand the producer's business and production practices, are time-consuming.

The other barrier is pricing. The group-purchasing power of national food-service-management companies demands prices much lower than small farms and producers can meet. Yet, creative food service directors have freed up additional budget room with alternative solutions, such as cutting food-waste costs and re-evaluating menu options.

So how can a small producer chip away at these barriers?

One answer: Build relationships with institutional food buyers and chefs.

Bob Perkins, owner-operator of Autumn View Farm in Pittsfield, seized an opportunity last year to connect with the food director at a nearby hospital.

Bob completed the Farm to Healthcare questionnaire, a tool developed by the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund and Healthcare Without Harm to help connect producers with food-service buyers. Autumn View's products caught the eye of the Concord Hospital food director, who invited Bob to contact him.

During the 2014 growing season, the farm and the hospital tested their new relationship. Bob developed a product list and handled delivery, invoicing and price negotiations. In this video, Bob explains how the relationship developed over the growing season and what the next steps are in the process.

Charlene Andersen is the Manager of Business Education for the Community Loan Fund's Business Finance team.