Beginning as a response to the demand for sustainable and local produce, a consortium of foodservice distributors joined together to create a networking initiative, Produce Regional Operators Advancing Cooperative Trade, or PRO*ACT, that now numbers more than 50 distributors. The PRO*ACT group has since launched the Greener Fields Together program, which supports farms with nearly $100,000 in grants.

The Cultivating Change grants are funded by PRO*ACT’s distribution network and are awarded to local farms that supply fresh produce for distribution to restaurants and other foodservice operations. “We decided there was an opportunity to begin giving back to the local farms that we’re working with and, in turn, support our distributors that are making those donations and purchasing from local farms,” says Anne Nichols, sustainability manager for Greener Fields Together. “It’s very cyclical in that the Cultivating Change grant is meant to go for improvements on the farm that can then allow them to grow more efficiently and improve operations.”

PRO*ACT, which has 71 distribution centers, sources from national, regional, and local farmers. The Greener Fields Together program seeks to implement sustainability practices that improve environmental impact and works with 130 local farms throughout the nation. For the farm to be considered local, it must be within a seven-hour drive of one of the distribution centers and have no more than $100 million in sales. However, Nichols says most farm suppliers have sales under $1 million. 

Greener Fields Together supplies a number of benefits to local farm suppliers, including paying for annual third-party audits and providing education on food safety, while using the network to expand the farms’ markets. 

“Say there’s a farm in North Georgia. They can then service the Atlanta market, as well as the Chattanooga market, as well as the Charlotte, North Carolina, market. They can work with all of our distributors to expand their reach,” Nichols says. “Since we have that network of distributors on the logistics side, a lot of our distributors are willing to work together to get a farmer’s produce to the next stop.”

Under the Cultivating Change program, donations are made in increments of 5 cents whenever a distributor purchases a package from a Greener Fields Together farm. That money is accumulated at the end of the year and divided into grants for 16 local farms in increments of $3,000, $5,000, and $10,000. Farmers apply to use the grants for a variety of reasons—from seed bank projects to bringing fresh produce from farms to schools—and a panel of industry professionals, including chefs José Andrés and Rick Bayless, select the winners.

Feature, Sustainability