A Funder's Urgent Push to Make One Region's Food Systems More Sustainable

As Boston’s John Merck Fund spends down, one of its top priorities is to leave behind a stronger and more sustainable food system in New England—no small task. 

The issue of sustainable agriculture and food systems continues to grow in interest among funders, offering impacts on a range of problems such as climate change, public health, economic development, and food security. While people are going bananas for farmer’s markets and urban farming, making sustainable agriculture work on a larger scale can get really complicated, with complex supply chains, disconnected players, and industrial systems dominating. So it’s an issue that could use a lot of support.

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One funder that has taken on the task of making New England’s food system sustainable is the John Merck Fund, a Boston-based foundation that has made it one of four priorities as it unloads its assets.  

The John Merck Fund was formed in 1970 by Serena S. Merck, of the family behind the pharmaceutical giant, and is currently led by her grandchildren, and longtime environmental leader Ruth Hennig as executive director. JMF sticks mostly to New England, and pops up in a lot of interesting progressive and environmental initiatives, with other programs in environmental health, clean energy, and developmental disabilities.  

The Regional Food Systems program grew out of earlier work supporting farming in Vermont, but after the foundation made the decision to spend down, it shifted to a regional effort. It gives to a bunch of different work, including organic farming associations, food banks, and even impact investing, like backing Vermont Creamery to establish a dairy and keep the supply local.

One of its biggest strategies is leveraging the purchasing power of education and healthcare institutions to increase demand for local food and strengthen the farming economy.

A central player in this effort is Farm to Institution New England (FINE), a network of nonprofits, businesses, and public entities that works to link up buyers to producers and provide support to partners. 

The idea is that across six states, there are tons of schools, hospitals, colleges, and other institutions that provide food. Make it so those institutions can get more of that food locally and it adds stability to farms by increasing demand, and provides healthy food for workers and students. It’s a profitable but complex step up from farmer’s markets, so FINE gets more institutions participating, and helps producers make it work.

FINE is an interesting initiative that emerged from a loose network of regional efforts and has grown with backing from JMF and another local food funder, the Kendall Foundation, to have an impact on a big system. 

JMF is now estimating $100 million in grants over its 10-year spend down period, closing in 2022. The family’s strategy is motivated by a sense of urgency in its issues—they feel that steady, incremental progress isn’t enough. JMF has so far given more than $1 million to FINE alone, and concentrating millions more in a limited time and geography could really move this issue.

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