Institutions welcome direct farm sales
Updated: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 10:09 AM
By STEVE BROWN
WOODINVILLE, Wash. -- It looks like a typical small farmers' market -- farm trucks backed up to shaded booths and attractive displays of fresh produce.
But these buyers aren't shopping for themselves. They're shopping for institutions.
Chuck Zielinski, director of food and nutritional services at the University of Washington Medical Center, stopped at the Hayton Farms booth to talk with Hollie Skinner.
"This helps the hospital improve its mission of health and wellness," Zielinski said. Researchers at the medical center study nutrition, and connecting that research to foods will educate staff and patients.
Connecting farms and buyers in a regional food system is the primary mission of the Puget Sound Food Network. Lucy Norris is marketing director of the network, which is a project of the Northwest Agriculture Business Center. Operating with a USDA Value Added Producer Grant, Norris works with 210 producers and a growing number of institutional customers, including hospitals.
"This is really about business," she said. "We get the word out to who makes the purchases, help them establish relationships, then we get out of the way."
One success story is Meritage Soups, based in Redmond. It was just awarded a contract with the University of Washington Housing and Food Service, replacing a major national food company. Meritage creates its specialty soups with regional produce and is trying to get more local farms involved, Karen Mauden, account manager at the Puget Sound Food Network, said.
Micheal Meyering, project and sustainability manager for the UW food service, said he appreciates that Meritage employs local people and that the tax revenue stays in Washington, but the product has to taste good.
An added benefit of a closer connection, he said, is "they can cater to our needs."
Norris echoed how communication works on both ends of direct sales. "We're talking about volume here," she said. "The purchaser can leverage trends as well as the producer."
An interaction at a nearby booth demonstrated that two-way street. Eddie Hill, who works with 10 individual farms at Seattle Tilth, introduced Karen Shelton to a variety of greens she had not seen before.
As he handed her a bunch to take along, he described his favorite way of cooking them. Shelton, in turn, said she pictured preparing them for the 500 children at the White Center Educare Early Learning Center, where as head cook she serves 1,500 meals a day.
"This event marks one of the first times we have had the opportunity to work directly with this many farms," she said. "It's definitely making it much easier for us."