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Better Data, Stronger Impact

Ecotrust’s new metrics platform spawns tighter focus in farm to institution programming

An important piece of creating a food system that fosters health and community with every bite is working with anchor institutions throughout our region. Schools, hospitals, colleges and universities feed enormous numbers of us and our neighbors, and are the most reliable sources of food many kids and families have.

Farm to institution not only leverages and enhances our decade-long commitment to farm to school, it is a key strategy in a broad effort to overcome food insecurity, invest in the health and well-being of our next generation, and work proactively to create more equitable communities via food.

Are our collective efforts making a difference? Owing to the competitive nature of food distribution, it can be exceedingly difficult to access data on the amount of local food making it to institutions, and to evaluate the success of outreach and education efforts like those conducted by the NW Food Buyers’ Alliance (NWFBA) in the Portland metro area, or the Local Institutional Food Team (LIFT) in Seattle.

To illuminate this key challenge and engage others in helping devise creative solutions, Ecotrust has created a Farm to Institution Metrics Platform. This platform helps identify important gaps in the available data, and will facilitate ongoing measurement and evaluation. Our thinking and work on this effort has been informed by Ecotrust’s participation in a National Farm to Institution Metrics Collaborative, which includes like-minded partners from around the United States who are keen to develop a common set of key indicators, and to share learning from region to region.

Cafeteria workers prepare the day's salad bar.

This metrics platform defines parameters for Ecotrust’s farm to institution work, facilitates priority-setting and program development, and highlights opportunities to make bigger impact. For example, building social equity in concert with economic opportunity and environmental well-being is one of our driving motivations, and recent research has identified race as a primary barrier to all of the above (more so than class or gender, in fact) in a myriad of contexts. However, prior to developing this metrics platform, we had neither targeted nor assessed specific program interventions based on race. Having attempted to do so for the first time in this platform, we can now readily see important gaps in data, as well as clear opportunity to make a bigger impact in building social equity.

This platform is also illuminating in that it shows how early in their development are our collective “farm to institution” efforts, despite more than a decade in the trenches. The focus of practitioners has thus far been primarily on market penetration: How many schools reached? What percentage of purchasing is local? What distance must food travel?

 “We now have the structure for a much tighter focus in our farm to institution practice, which is to target programs and interventions directly towards the greatest disparities, serving students, patients, clients and staff who need it most.”

With this data we will be better able to shape programming and report on impact based on the racial and income composition of institutions.

One obvious next step is for us to turn next toward the leadership of the farm to institution movement, including ourselves. Do we represent the people we intend to serve? How do we make our decisions? Who holds the power in our collaborative efforts? On all fronts, there is work to be done. With solid data at our backs, and new partnerships in our future, the evolution of the farm to institution movement is poised to deliver more meaningfully on social equity, economic opportunity, and environmental wellbeing than it ever has in the past. And not a moment too soon.