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Mobilizing New England institutions to transform the regional food system

We envision a more sustainable, resilient, equitable, transparent, and just food system in New England driven by the power of institutions.

Photo of Sarah Lyman
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Farm to Institution New England (FINE)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

New England, a six-state region in the northeastern corner of the United States of America

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

FINE’s very mission is framed by Place: to mobilize the power of New England institutions to transform our food system. FINE supports a broad network of producers, institutions, distributors, nonprofits, policymakers, and others in a shared effort to leverage institutional procurement and influence to create a more resilient regional food system. This institutional network impacts nearly all New Englanders at some point: a quarter of us step foot in one of New England’s colleges, hospitals, and K-12 schools everyday. The growers, fishers, makers, and other producers reside in our communities, from urban centers to rural areas to offshore. New England is where our staff and advisory council live, work, and play. 

Self-reliance has historically been a key part of New England self-identity. “Yankee grit” is New England pride in our region’s frigid winters, short growing seasons, and the bonds formed between neighbors as we withstand extremes together. New England has a long history of agricultural production, starting thousands of years prior to European settlement, and continuing with centuries of diversified production in a post-colonial times. And yet in the past 100 years, we have become increasingly disconnected from our food. Today, 90% of the food New Englanders eat is produced outside the region: this lack of self-reliance seems in direct conflict with our shared values.

FINE seeks to reunite New Englanders with their local food by harnessing institutional power to make transformative change. At its core, FINE is a Place-based network organization, deeply embedded throughout New England and its institutional food chain. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The region in the northeastern corner of the United States has referred to itself as New England since the early seventeenth century. It is characterized by steep mountains and rolling hills, freshwater lakes, a rugged coastline, rich fishing grounds and shellfish beds, productive farmland, cultural centers, and cold winters. New Englanders strongly identify with their history and working landscape, and value independence, community self-sufficiency, and frugality. 

New England is comprised of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, the size and population of which vary greatly from state to state: State: population (% of New England); size (% of New England); # of people per km2 Connecticut: 3,572,665 (24%); 14,357 km2 (8%); 249 Maine: 1,338,404 (9%); 91,633 km2 (49%); 15 Massachusetts: 6,902,149 (46%); 27,336 (15%); 252 New Hampshire: 1,356,458 (9%); 24,214 (13%); 56 Rhode Island: 1,057,315 (7%); 4,001 (2%); 264 Vermont: 626,299 (4%); 24,906 (13%); 25 

These six states represent a diverse population and landscape, and yet these 14.9 million people (2019) feel connected to one another through shared history and cultural traditions. 

The history of New England begins with early peoples who came to North America sometime during the last Ice Age. More recent tribal identity in New England includes Abenaki, Penobscot, Pequot, and Wampanoag. Europeans arrived in the early 1600s, and it was English explorer John Smith who named the region “New England.” These new settlers brought with them illness, slavery, new ideas, and an urge to dominate the land. It was likely the conflict between the colonies and England during the American Revolution which galvanized New England with a sense of pride and geographic identity, even as Native American and African American traditions were simultaneously persecuted. Writes one author, “The history of New England is the history of America.” 

Not surprisingly, woven through all this history and landscape is a place-based identity around food. New England is distinct for a wide variety of foods in which its residents take pride and earn a living. Maine lobster, Vermont maple syrup, Massachusetts (Boston) baked beans, New England clam chowder: these are just a few foods sought by tourists, cherished by locals, and needed to sustain the New England economy. 

Part of the fabric of New England are its K-12 schools, colleges, hospitals and prisons. On any given day, 1 in 4 New Englanders will step foot in one of these 5,084 institutions. They employ 700,000 people, and spend nearly $1 billion on food every year: institutions have tremendous power in the food system. These institutions are also thought leaders, educators, and anchors in the community in every sense. 

New England remains a region of contrasts, but its residents unite around a shared identity of place.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Our food system in New England is at a turning point. We face a slew of formidable challenges, from rising global threats such as climate change, to region-specific demographic changes such as an aging farmer population. But we also have reason to be optimistic; by applying the right leverage, we will be able to move New England towards a more sustainable, equitable, transparent, and just food future. 

Our vision focuses on the power of institutions, such as schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, prisons, and jails. New England Institutions influence our food system through their purchasing power ($1B+ per year on food and beverage), their influence on what we eat (making contact with 3.8 million residents per day), and their ability to provide a diversified and stable market for New England producers. Institutions have the potential to either entrench current harmful practices, or use their influence to transform the food system. 

We are in a period of significant global environmental change, and New England mirrors these trends. We already feel the impacts of climate change - physically, economically, and biologically. For example, in 2017, Massachusetts suffered $14M in crop damage due to extreme drought. Southern New England lost its iconic lobster fishery as warming oceans change populations and species distribution. Industrial agriculture practices, land conversion, species introductions, pollution, and development combine to threaten pollinators, decrease biodiversity, limit water for drinking and farming, and harm soil health. 

We further complicate matters when we develop policies that undermine our food system. Zoning laws created without food needs in mind hamper urban agriculture and affect food access. State institutional procurement policies, while well intended, lack the strength to drive change. And national policies often serve the industrial agriculture complex and status quo rather than work towards the future we need. 

To build this better future, we must recognize the legacies of past mistakes. Although New England is often heralded for its progressive history, we see the continuing impacts of slavery and racism. People of color continue to have less access to capital, insurance, financing, and land, which often excludes them from full participation in our food system. And the challenges of poor nutrition, lack of food access, and hunger, which affects up to 15% of New Englanders, is experienced more significantly by the poor, immigrants, and people of color. 

The future we want also requires more transparency in the food system. The current “one up, one down” approach to traceability results in slow responses to rising incidences of food safety issues, and incentivizes an opaque supply chain that thrives on a lack of information sharing. Combined with a focus on price and sales, we can’t fully assess what institutions are buying, where the food comes from, and how it moves through the supply chain.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

New England is already starting to rally behind a more sustainable and place-based approach towards agriculture. The number of farms has finally stabilized after a drastic drop in the middle of the 20th century, and we even saw those numbers start to rise at the beginning of the 21st. We’re also seeing a greater number of women and young people farming, compared to other regions of the US. Through FINE’s research on institutional food procurement, we see an increase in regional food purchases, with institutions now spending almost $167 million on regional food. We have an active and growing network of stakeholders working on farm to institution in the region that includes institutions, businesses, nonprofits, food policy groups, farm to institution working groups, and even government appointed directors of food strategy. 

A core group of farm to institution stakeholders and funders created FINE nearly a decade ago. We focused our efforts on local food procurement, in response to a regional food system that relied heavily on food procured from outside the region. This food model meant that money, jobs, and control of the food system all came from outside the region, in contrast with New Englanders’ shared values of self-reliance. New England lacked regional food security and influence over a core basic human need - food. In the last decade, we’ve made real progress. Our network continues to grow, and institutional food procurement is helping support a growing agriculture sector in New England. 

In the coming decades, we know that to truly create a strong regional food system, we must ensure we are also building a sustainable food system that is transparent, equitable, and just. FINE has already started this work by engaging a diversity of stakeholders whose missions vary, but who are bonded by a shared common goal of a better food system. 

We know that change comes when stakeholders are fully engaged in identifying the problems and solutions. FINE engages New England farm to institution stakeholders across supply chains, states, sectors, and cultures. We identify and amplify what is working, and we focus on working through the challenges that impede progress. This collaborative problem-solving approach, combined with the ingenuity and technological developments in our region, will enable us to mobilize action towards the food system we envision.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In 2050, New England will be a more diverse region than it is today, and we will see that reflected in the actors in our food system. At least half of them -- farmers, fishers, business owners, chefs, and others -- will be women. And a greater percentage of actors and leaders will be people of color, including recent immigrants. This diversity will lead to better problem solving, thanks to a more inclusive and representative network of stakeholders with a shared vision for our region’s food system. 

Institutions will spend more than 30% of their food budgets on food grown, raised, or harvested the region. More food will be from sustainable sources that use regenerative practices, ensure animal welfare, and support good livelihoods. Institutions will also use their food programs to help increase food access, provide better nutrition, and develop the next generation of food systems leaders. 

Although we’ll still be fighting the effects from climate change, our region will be working on lowering its carbon footprint through soil health, reduced transportation miles, and efficient transport. We’ll build resiliency into the food system through regenerative practices and reliable markets, with stronger relationships between growers and buyers thanks to improved transparency in the system. 

We’ll also enjoy better support for our regional food system, through more effective state and national policies that incentivize our shared values and goals. Through improved technologies and cooperative efforts across the public and private sectors, and between institutions and their supply chains and allies, we envision full traceability and transparency into the food system. With this transparency, we will be able to share, with confidence, our progress towards our vision.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

What would happen if every hospital patient had access to fresh, healthy food? If college students were given the opportunity to grow their own food while protecting soil, waterways, and surrounding habitats? What if schoolchildren had a chance to dig in the dirt and watch their food grow from seed? What if the food served to our most vulnerable populations - our children, elders, patients, and prisoners - came from local farms and fishers that produced proteins and produce from within healthy ecosystems, by people who made a good living from their work? What if we all could know and recognize where our meals came from? 

Farm to Institution New England represents a broad group of stakeholders who are addressing these types of questions to move us towards a more sustainable, resilient, equitable, transparent, and just food system in New England - by mobilizing the power of institutions.

These stakeholders form a network that includes all parts of the farm to institution supply chains. The network also includes supporting organizations, advocates, and government agencies. We are made up of not only businesses, organizations, and institutions, but also individuals with different backgrounds, identities, ethnicities, and playing a variety of roles in our food system. We strive for an inclusive model of engagement that brings diverse voices to the table via advisory groups, vision building and goal setting, collaborative projects, and resource sharing. 

These stakeholders include partners in health care (e.g. Health Care Without Harm), schools (e.g. Vermont Farm to School Network), higher education (e.g. UMass Amherst), fellow food system advocates (e.g. Food Solutions New England), and so many others who work in policy, education, corrections, and government. Together, the members of our network have already taken steps to support regional food in New England (e.g. committing to the “‘50 by 60’ New England Food Vision” to regionally produce 50% of our food by 2060.) These committed network partners are in a unique position to implement the food vision we describe here, in mobilizing the power of institutions. One way we will measure this success is by looking to institutions, who we envision by 2030 will be spending 30% of their food budgets on regionally grown and produced foods - and who by 2050 will be far exceeding that number.

To create this kind of meaningful positive change in our region requires powerful levers that can influence multiple parts of the system. New England institutions have the potential to drive change and transform our food system because of the multiple ways they influence it: they have extensive purchasing power, spending more than a billion dollars per year on food and beverages;  they influence what we eat, serving 3.8 million residents per day; and they support a diversified and stable market for New England producers. Institutions serve as anchors in our communities due to their reach and longevity. In their influential role in education, institutions such as schools and colleges teach about food, ultimately shaping the next leaders in the food system. Institutions are in turn influenced by their internal cultures, and the cultures of the communities in which they sit. 

Mobilizing the potential of the 5,000+ institutions in New England requires vision, coordination, collaboration, and commitments to benchmarks. And this is where FINE comes in. FINE conducts surveys, collects qualitative information, and analyzes data to assess progress and needed improvements in farm to institution efforts. More and more institutions are making sustainability commitments and setting (and reaching) food purchasing goals. However, to get the impact we envision, we need to expand efforts and scale up impact across the farm to institution network.  FINE increases awareness, alignment, and action across our regional network. We identify what’s working, share lessons learned, and seed and support collaborative projects. 

Our vision of a more sustainable, resilient, equitable, transparent, and just food system in New England, driven by the power of institutions, reflects all six of the interconnected food system themes.


Institutions serve as economic anchors in our communities. They add to our economy through employment, purchases of goods and services, attracting external investments, and as substantial land and property owners. When it comes to the food system, New England institutions spend more than a billion dollars on food each year. Currently, less than 20% of the food budgets are devoted to regionally grown and produced food. We envision a future where all institutions are spending more than 30% of their food budgets on regionally grown and produced food that is also grown using regenerative practices, with fair and equitable labor and land access, and humane practices for animals. By increasing institutional demand for sustainable foods: more farmers, fishers, and makers will adopt better practices; we will stop the loss of farmland to development; wages and livelihoods will improve; and more funds will circulate through and support the regional economy.


Institutions also serve as cultural anchors in our communities. Colleges, universities, schools, and hospitals support the physical, intellectual, and cultural growth of the communities in which they are located. This support also extends to the institutional food programs. Institutional diners rely on the food provided for nourishment and nutrition, but they also want their values and preferences reflected in the food choices offered. Institutions can also influence these values and preferences in the ways that they communicate about the food served. Tapping into these intertwined influences on decisions about institutional food can serve as powerful drivers to help build demand for food that meets our values.


Institutions will purchase food that is grown using regenerative practices that protect soil, water, biodiversity, and help preserve ecosystems and ecosystem functions. These regenerative practices will in turn build a more resilient system. A more resilient system can help mitigate climate change impacts. Regenerative practices also help combat climate change impacts by a) sequestering carbon and b) limiting carbon inputs to the atmosphere by reducing transportation and decreasing intensive agriculture practices. To reach our vision, we will continue to build institutional demand for food that minimizes environmental impact and incorporates regenerative practices. This institutional demand helps ensure greater supply by creating value for land that is used to grow foods with regenerative practices.


Increasing purchases of regionally produced foods grown with regenerative practices and providing them to institutional diners will improve diets of vulnerable populations, including the young, elderly, ill, and incarcerated people in our region. It will increase the availability of fresh, nutritious foods. By limiting storage and transport, fewer nutrients will be lost. And by improving livelihoods of farmworkers and other food systems employees, and increasing availability of regionally produced foods, we will increase access to healthy, nutritious food for all.


Technology is essential to the modern-day food system. From seed development to harvesting equipment to processing and even cooking food, technology is driving improvement, efficiency, and expanding our idea of what food is. But some technological developments have harmed our natural resources and created negative often unintended consequences. One area where technology will be critical is in the advancement of traceability and transparency in the food system. Our expanding ability to manage data will help us know which foods in the supply chain meet our values. This product information is critical to ensure that values-based demand helps drive improvements throughout the supply chain, and that producers, suppliers, and buyers share the same vision and values. Reliable data on our foods is also essential to meet our value of transparency. With full transparency into the food system, we will be able to share, with confidence, our progress towards our vision.


Public policy at the federal, state and local levels will play a key role in setting the regulatory framework to enable institutions to play their role in manifesting our vision. Procurement policies will provide incentives for institutions to give greater preference for food that is regionally sourced, fairly traded, humanely raised, produced with sustainable practices and nutritious. Policies will also level the playing field and provide greater transparency so that we can understand how the food in the institutional supply chain is integrating these values. Although we expect variation at the local level, we expect collaboration among policy makers will result in iterative models, increasingly successful in meeting intended outcomes. 

Our vision of a better food system is rooted in our shared values: collaboration, community and place, diversity, equity, healthy ecosystems, strategic disruption, the right to food, thriving local economies, and transparency. These values reinforce each other and reflect the need for whole systems thinking to understand and integrate the complex connections of the people, programs, and policies related to the food system. Our values provide the basis for the development of our shared vision. Each person and group with the network will play different roles and take different actions, but working together our actions will be amplified as we become empowered to create a better food system in the future. 

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Attachments (6)

FINE 2020 Strategic Plan.pdf

The ideas guiding our work in leveraging institutions to increase local food purchases in New England are framed by specific goals, indicators and strategies. Our strategic plan sets out this framework for implementation and to measure success.


FINE's biennial event "New England Farm to Institution Summit" convenes more than 500 people for three days to learn, share, explroe and connect. Attendees come from around the region representing a variety of sectors, and include food service operators, institutional purchasers, local food advocates, farmers, processors, and distributors.

Institutions as Conscious Food Consumers_Ch 8_FINE.pdf

This chapter entitled "Farm to Institution New England: Mobilizing the Power of a Region's Institutions to Transform a Region's Food System" appears in the 2019 Academic Press / Elsevier book "Institutions as Conscious Food Consumers Leveraging Purchasing Power to Drive Systems Change."

Regional Trends in New England Farm to Institution Procurement Policy.pdf

All six New England states have some form of policy encouraging or requiring that institutions purchase local food products. Yet the laws differ from state to state, and in many cases, aren’t particularly effective. These are the findings outlined in a 2019 report from Farm to Institution New England (FINE) and the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) at Vermont Law School entitled Regional Trends in New England Farm to Institution Procurement Policy.

FINE Story Card - Doug Feeney - FINAL.pdf

To inspire others, we highlight specific success stories in the New England farm to institution world.

FINE Campus Dining Report.pdf

This survey of more than half of New England colleges and universities with dining services yields insight into their purchasing. Respondents reported spending 21.5 percent of their annual food budget on local food.


Join the conversation:

Photo of charles hage

Hi Sarah,
The focus of FINE on institutions to create better food and food systems in NE is laudable. It makes great sense in itself and would promote wider commercial improvement. A few years ago, I encouraged Cornell University to work with New York State along similar lines, so I appreciate what you're doing.
Search on Charles Hage to take a look at my submission and please let me know if what you read suggests that we should talk.

Photo of Sarah Lyman

Hi Chuck - Thanks for your comment, and for sharing your work! You're so right about the challenges of these northern climates. We work closely with folks from Farm to Institution New York State ( who are dedicated to initiatives similar to ours but with a NYS focus - they might also be interested in hearing about your vision. In the meantime, we would love to stay in touch - we post events of ours and our network partners on our website and in our newsletter (you can sign up on our home page) Our biggest event is next spring - the New England Farm to Institution Summit - which pulls together more than 500 like-minded food system folks.

Photo of charles hage

Hi Sarah,
Thanks for reminding me about FINYS. I do intend to contact them.

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