PEC's Jessica Palmer (left) and Sue Ellen
Johnson (center) talk to Chef Tony DeWalt (right)
of Fauquier Hospital at a PEC Farm-to-Food
Photo by Katherine Vance
PEC has long recognized the importance of supporting the Piedmont’s local agriculture to create and maintain strong rural economies and communities. About seven years ago, PEC brought the Buy Fresh Buy Local (BFBL) program to the region—creating the local food guides and website (www.buylocalvirginia.org) to educate individual consumers as to where they can buy locally produced goods.The BFBL campaign has been incredibly successful—the printed guides alone connect over 265,000 households with more than 400 farms in PEC’s nine-county region. PEC staff, however, are coming up with ways to further strengthen this region’s local food movement.
“We’ve been thinking of how we could go beyond the individual consumer,” says Sue Ellen Johnson, PEC’s Director of Agriculture and Rural Economy Programs. “We started talking about how we could get institutions—such as private hospitals and schools—to offer local food... Institutions are economic engines. They buy and serve large quantities of food, and they serve and reach large numbers of people. They can help more farms be economically viable.”
So, in 2011, PEC got a grant from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to host a series of Farm-to-Food Service workshops and tours. These free events give food service professionals from regional institutions a chance to learn about local food sources, and to see how local food could fit into their menu and budgets. The series has also instigated some important conversations—allowing local food distributors and the food service professionals to talk through some of the difficulties.
“We are all learning as we go,” Johnson explains. “Local food is a very active playing field—there are a lot of people coming and going. Figuring out how to make it sustainable and how to expand it is critical.”
Thus far, PEC has hosted four Farm-to-Food Service workshops, and three tours of facilities that are either supplying or buying local food. Two more tours are on the calendar (January 31st and March 1st), and then PEC staff will assess the program to decide what the next step is in this important work.
Some undeniable successes of PEC’s Farm-to-Food Service programs are the networks and connections being made, and Clyde Firman—Foodservice Director at Woodberry Forest School in Madison County—can attest to this.
Clyde Firman (center) of Woodberry Forest
School talks with PEC’s Sue Ellen John-son
(left) and Chef Tony DeWalt (right) of Fauquier
Hospital at a PEC Farm-to-Food Service tour.
Firman connected with the Local Food Hub at
one of PEC’s workshops, and he has now been
working with them for 9 months.
Photo by Katherine Vance
Clyde Firman has been the head of Woodberry Forest School’s dining hall for about 18 years now, and he loves his job:
“I live right there on campus with my wife, who is the school nurse,” he explains, “and we just love it there. It’s a great community.”
Firman is a kind, soft-spoken man, but he is firm about the importance of providing fresh food for the school community. His dining hall averages 1,300 to 1,500 meals per day—serving 400 students and 150 faculty members. So, when Beth Burnam, PEC’s Madison County Field Officer, reached out to Firman to let him know about the Farm-to-Food Service workshops, he didn’t miss a beat. He attended the first one PEC offered in February 2011.
“It just blossomed from there,” says Firman. “I was introduced to the Local Food Hub at that meeting. We started talking, I started ordering some food from them, and it’s been great ever since... I’ve been working with them for almost 9 months now.”
Firman has noticed the quality of the local food he buys, and many of the students and staff at Woodberry Forest School have noticed as well: “I think people like knowing that the food is fresher and better for you,” he noted. “Many have noticed that it is a better product.”
While he considered buying locally before, Firman says he hadn’t found a way to act until attending PEC’s workshop. Now, about 10-15% of the school’s food is from local farms, and Firman hopes to do more in the future. “Because,” he says, “it’s the right thing to do.”