Published from an original story from High Meadows Fund. Find them on Twitter at (@HighMeadowsFund).We are in a precarious moment where gains made by Farm to Plate and Eat Local initiatives to grow and diversify Vermont’s agricultural opportunities are threatened by consolidation in the retail food industry. This consolidation is creating intense pressure to drive costs out of food distribution. These changes are making it harder for farmers to reach consumers who want to provide both healthy food for their families and a fair wage to the farmer.
Moving from Local Purchasing Relationships to Centralized ControlWe’re seeing a severing of the ties between local producers, distributors, and the corporate buyers at mega-grocery chains. Farmers are being forced to bear the costs of transportation and labor along the supply chain as stores and distributors seek greater savings. When stores buy too much, or there’s spoilage downstream, farmers are saddled with “chargebacks” for unsold goods.
What are the Right Markets for Vermont Farmers?Many specialty, independent food stores and co-ops aim to offer farmers a better price point than their corporate competitors. However, despite offering needs-based discounts (for example, through the Food For All program at Burlington’s City Market), the higher prices feed perceptions that they primarily serve affluent consumers.
Opportunity in Institutional Markets – Health Care, Colleges, and MoreAnother area that’s showing particular promise is food hubs’ ability to connect modest-sized Vermont farms with institutional markets, particularly colleges and hospitals, where administrators recognize the value of healthy food and local sustainable growing practices. Students are also able to hold colleges to local buying commitments through programs like the Real Food Challenge. Hospitals and health care centers are guided by standards set by Health Care Without Harm, which articulate both food and sustainability practices across their industry.
ConclusionHigh Meadows has committed $300,000 over the next two years toward growing local food sales by helping food hubs scale up and find sustainable business models, focusing on markets that recognize, and are willing to pay for, the value of locally produced food. While this is a large commitment for High Meadows, it will only partly meet the need, so we hope other funders will join us in this work. If this initiative proves successful, we’re committed to extending it beyond 2020.
This article was written by Gaye Symington, with initial research and writing by Morgan True, of Kria Associates.
 Jean Hamilton, “Stagnant, Saturated, or Ready to Surge? Strategic Marketing Investments for Vermont’s Direct to Consumer Markets,” NOFA, 2017, https://nofavt.org/sites/default/files/files/resources/vt_direct_markets-stagnant_saturated_or_ready_to_surge.pdf.