MONTPELIER, Vt. — A new $250,000 federal grant is aimed at putting more locally raised food into New England’s schools, colleges and hospitals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, awarded this month to the northeast committee of the National Farm to School Network, will help pay for expanding processing of local food in Massachusetts, opening a new processing project in Maine and setting up a model distribution system.
Proponents say that if New England schools bought just 5 percent local foods, it could boost the region’s agriculture economy by $7.5 million. It’s difficult to track how much local food schools and other institutions now buy.
In Vermont, more than 200 schools purchase local products, but for many it’s only a small percentage of their total food. A few have reached 20 percent, said Dana Hudson, the Northeast regional project coordinator.
But demand has been rising in the last few years, not just from schools but from institutions such as colleges and hospitals as people seek fresh, healthy, safe foods while supporting local farmers and reducing environmental impacts of transporting foods long distances.
“There’s just a lot of demand for the local product by the institutions and kind of a scrambling in the ag industry to meet that demand because so many of our farmers are not wholesaling any more, they’re selling direct to consumers,” said Kelly Erwin, coordinator of the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, which works to match farmers with schools.
“My fondest hope is it means we’ll have to put more acres into production,” she said.
Since it can’t keep up with the demand, the project will use the funding to hire someone to help.
Some funding will also go toward expanding processing at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield, Mass., where some farmers now are flash freezing produce — berries and vegetables — to sell to schools, Erwin said.
Discussions also will be set up with institutions and distributors around the region to identify obstacles to and opportunities for buying local products.
In Rhode Island, where all public schools are buying some local foods, Kids First, a nonprofit focused on improving the nutrition of children and families, will work with a vendor that supplies fresh produce to New England schools to create a model distribution system so that customers can select certain produce from certain farms.
Vermont plans to use its share of the funding for technical assistance for farmers as well as to support its own Farm to School Network, said Hudson, who added that the panel hopes to raise another $750,000.