Real Food Challenge: This Is How It Works: 8 Ways Institutional Procurement is Building a Real Food Economy

December 13, 2018

Brand new farms and food businesses. More job opportunities. Small enterprises, eager to grow, finally scaling up and family farms going organic. A Real Food economy is here and growing — and this growth is anchored by institutions of higher ed. That’s the picture that emerges from our new report.

More than $82 million has been committed to Real Food annually at colleges and universities across the country. But what does that mean? RFC has been inundated with questions from food buyers, staff at higher education institutions, students, producers, and more about the impact of the Real Food commitment. In what ways is institutional Real Food procurement building the robust, healthy food system we want — or not? What do purchasing relationships with colleges and universities mean to vendors on the ground?

So, we picked up the phone and asked. We interviewed 50 Real Food-qualifying vendors from across the country, asking questions about their relationships with campuses that had made commitments to Real Food, and questions about the impact of institutional procurement. We located those stories in the landscape of food purchasing in higher ed, analyzing data gathered by student researchers across the country using the Real Food Calculator.

What we found was that access to institutional markets has the potential to transform farms and food businesses, as well as local and regional food systems as a whole. We identified 8 ways that colleges and universities actually contribute to Real Food economy. See the full list in the report.

The Oil Barn in Montana, for instance, was able to make the decision to grow all organic crops because of the University of Montana’s steady business. The Common Market in Philadelphia was able to grow by extending its business south to Baltimore with Johns Hopkins University as an anchor in the city. LINC Foods in Washington state was able to get off the ground with the certainty of Gonzaga University as a big buyer when the school made a commitment to 20% Real Food by 2020.

We also heard about hurdles faced by these farms and food businesses. That’s why we are determined to break through key barriers with the Real Meals Campaign.

Overall, the findings of this report add fuel to the fire in our bellies. Beyond the practical effects and evidence that Real Food procurement is building a Real Food economy, we also heard about systemic, entrenched barriers still faced by these farms and food businesses. These findings are among the many reasons we’ve launched the Real Meals Campaign along with a diverse coalition of farmers, fishers, worker, and environmental groups. This new campaign would expand Real Food procurement by almost a billion dollars – exponentially scaling and expanding on the meaningful impacts we celebrate in this report.

Imagine a world in which the stories in this report of a thriving Real Food economy are commonplace. That world is real. It’s ready. And with the right policies and priorities, driven by a strong grassroots movement, it is within reach.