By Kimberly Libman and Glenda Neff
When you hear “local food,” what do you imagine? Do you think of apple picking every fall at your favorite orchard, rows of sweet corn along a country road, or your favorite stall at the farmers market?
Chances are all of these options come to mind, but you seldom think of farm-fresh foods appearing on plates at local school cafeterias, college dining halls, hospitals and emergency food programs. Traditionally, canned, frozen and processed foods, often purchased out of state, make up the bulk of institutional fare, but it’s not only possible to serve fresh, highly-nutritious foods in New York’s schools, hospitals, and other institutions, it’s a double-win for public health and our local economy.
The new report, “The Public Plate in New York State: Growing Health, Farms and Jobs with Local Food,” produced by The New York Academy of Medicine (the Academy) and the American Farmland Trust as part of its Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) initiative, explains that increasing public spending on fresh or minimally-processed food grown in New York has the potential to positively impact the health of approximately 6 million people eating in public institutions and possibly generate more than 200 million dollars in additional economic output.
Healthier Food Equals a Healthier Economy
It’s important to recognize that institutions across New York, including hospitals, universities, childcare centers, prisons, older adult centers and food pantries, all play a significant role in our health. In addition, these organizations serve food purchased with public dollars – they are collectively referred to as the “public plate.”
From a health perspective, the upside potential of increasing the amount of healthy food on the public plate is tremendous. Poor diet is a leading cause of death and chronic disease. Increasing the procurement of farm-fresh local foods by these institutions and organizations offers many of New York’s most nutritionally vulnerable residents opportunities to eat in ways that may lower their risks for obesity or developing a host of diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Additionally, the increased income and economic activity associated with spending public plate dollars on food grown in New York may improve the health of rural communities by bringing new jobs and higher incomes to residents. An investment in local food greatly impacts New York farmers and food businesses. According to the Public Plate report, institutions spend more than $957 million annually on food. Allotting 25 percent of that budget to foods grown and raised in New York would generate $208 million in additional economic output. Such an investment in the state’s economy would support jobs on farms, as well as the food processors, distributors and others that do business with them.
As a health promotion strategy, farm to institution procurement stands alone in its ability to address hunger, obesity and chronic disease rates among New Yorkers, while bringing together diverse stakeholders, such as farmers, parents, doctors, educators, cooks and eaters, while also increasing economic activity.
The State of New York has a unique opportunity to become a national leader in the farm to institution movement by establishing a clear goal of spending at least 25 percent of public funds on food grown on farms in the state—connecting the dots between a healthy food economy and healthy citizens. From young children in childcare programs and schools to older adults receiving meals in adult care centers and visiting food pantries, everyone wins when we support fresh, local food and the farmers who grow it.
How can you help? Speak up at town halls, write and call your legislators, talk to your school board or the administrators of institutions that serve your community and encourage them to seize this opportunity by purchasing at least 25 percent of the foods they serve from farms right here at home, in New York State!