Five years ago, Ecotrust launched Local Link to give buyers and sellers an opportunity to start building the relationships that help strengthen a regional food system—one that contributes to thriving local economies, vibrant urban and rural communities, and equitable access to good food. What began as a vendor fair where institutional food buyers—schools, hospitals, universities, and corporate chefs—could meet and sample the foods of local producers has evolved into a unique networking and learning opportunity.
School districts and hospitals are anchor institutions integral to the transformation of the food system. For more than a decade, Ecotrust has worked to help these wholesale buyers put their purchasing dollars toward local and regional producers. On the other side of the coin, local producers and food businesses ready to grow needed new avenues to make the personal connections that lead to lasting purchasing relationships.
With the state’s recent expansion of farm to school and school garden funding and many voices calling for more culturally relevant food in school and hospital cafeterias, Local Link is becoming a meeting place for procurement leaders to make meaningful connections with regional producers and good food businesses. This year’s format connected a morning vendor fair, the second annual convening of the Portland Metro Farm to School Procurement Hub, and a Whole Hog Culinary Demo, a hands-on exploration of how to purchase and utilize a whole hog in an institutional kitchen setting.
“Local link event gave me an opportunity to make great connections that resulted in my products being served by some local school cafeterias.” — Eleni Woldeyes, founder and manager of Eleni’s Kitchen
With more than 40 vendors representing a range of value-added food businesses, farmers, fishers, and ranchers, the Vendor Fair was a unique expression of the diversity of regional food products our region has to offer. Buyers from hospitals, grocery stores, and restaurants, as well as representatives from 12 school districts, sampled value-added products like Ethiopian simmer sauce and locally-made nut butters, discussed preparations of quality raw ingredients like pasture-raised pork and hook-and-line-caught tuna, and talked with vendors about the steps they could take together to develop relationships that lead to regional sourcing.
In addition to buyers and sellers connecting, many vendors spent time networking with each other, talking about common challenges, brainstorming new partnerships, or even sourcing from their fellow vendors. It’s these kinds of connections that help strengthen a regional food network, and what has made the Local Link vendor fair a valuable contribution in building a community committed to those ideals.
“The Portland Metro Procurement Hub Gathering was an incredible event that offered opportunities for school food buyers and local producers to connect. Relationships are the cornerstone of this innovative work and events such as this help everyone to make strides towards a more equitable, sustainable, and nutritious lunch plate for Oregon students.” — Melina Barker, Program Coordinator of Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network
In July 2019, the Oregon Legislature allocated a historic $15 million investment in farm-to-school and school garden eduction for the state’s school districts.
The recent increase in funding is something to celebrate. But it also raises a lot of questions. How will these funds be equitably distributed? Are schools ready to access the additional purchasing dollars? Are producers or food businesses ready with recipes and products that schools are looking for? Ecotrust is the convener of the Portland Metro Farm to School Procurement Hub—one of several hubs throughout the state as part of the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network working to help schools and producers connect and confront shared challenges around making farm to school a reality. Along with local sourcing, Oregon school food nutrition managers have been seeking connections to answer the calls from their communities for school food featuring more culturally-relevant ingredients, supplied by producers that are as diverse as the students they serve.
The Procurement Hub gathering at Local Link included more than 70 farm to school stakeholders—nutrition services staff, producers, value-added food businesses, distributors, educators, non-profit partners, and local and state government program representatives—all dedicated to the purchase and promotion of locally-sourced, culturally-relevant, nutritious, and delicious foods in Portland-area schools and early care and education sites. The group shared a meal, networked, and engaged in guided discussions to confront barriers, make connections, and explore possibilities for advancing regional farm to school efforts.
The Procurement Hub learning session coalesced around racial equity as a vital issue across the food system, and the understanding that racial equity is urgently needed where food systems most directly impact children. Our Director of Food Equity, Jamese Kwele, led a session to build a shared understanding of racial equity and the potential for culturally relevant foods to create school environments that reflect the languages and cultures of children and families, cultivate environments of inclusion, support children’s social and emotional development, and affirm all students’ abilities to see themselves reflected through school food and educational activities. The group then collectively identified pathways towards racial equity in farm to school through procurement, direct engagement with youth and families, and education.
Going Whole Hog
For many large-scale kitchens, efficiency is the name of the game. But by focusing on making a smooth path between distributor and foodservice operations, many kitchens have lost the capacity for scratch cooking, including basic butchery. Rebuilding that capacity among anchor institution chefs and foodservice staff opens up the freedom and ability to source from local farmers and ranchers, rather getting animal protein via commodity distribution. As we work to connect schools and hospitals directly with local producers, we also recognize the need to provide food service chefs and cooks with resources to make every dollar—and every bite—of their decision to go local count. Throughout his career, Chef Andre Uribe has worked to de-industrialize the institutional kitchen with low-waste, high-taste local, seasonal ingredients for culturally-specific meals into his kitchens.
Together with distribution pro Zack Agopian, Chef Andre brought a hands-on lesson in whole hog purchasing, preparation, menuing, and logistics to the Redd’s demonstration kitchen.
There are buyers and producers who recognize our food system can be culturally-relevant, regional, and nutritious—and that radical, practical change starts with relationships. To see them sitting elbow-to-elbow over a meal at Local Link feeds our hope in a regional food system that grows shared wellness and prosperity.