Valley Bounty: Delivering local food onto students’ plates: Marty’s Local connects farms to businesses

Driver Kevin Aloisi makes a delivery of local foods to Marty’s Local customer.

Driver Kevin Aloisi makes a delivery of local foods to Marty’s Local customer. Photo by Sandra Thomas

A Mi Tierra tortilla served with lunch in Greenfield schools.

A Mi Tierra tortilla served with lunch in Greenfield schools. ​​​​Courtesy Marty's Local

Local popcorn from Pioneer Valley Popcorn is the perfect school day snack.

Local popcorn from Pioneer Valley Popcorn is the perfect school day snack. Greenfield Public Schools Food Service

Local popcorn from Pioneer Valley Popcorn is the perfect school day snack.

Local popcorn from Pioneer Valley Popcorn is the perfect school day snack. Greenfield Public Schools Food Service

Nick Martinelli, CEO of Marty’s Local, in one of the company’s fleet trucks.

Nick Martinelli, CEO of Marty’s Local, in one of the company’s fleet trucks. Photo by Sandra Thomas

Local asparagus (aka Hadley Grass) from Plainville Farm and Warner Farm is served in quiche and also prepped for roasting.

Local asparagus (aka Hadley Grass) from Plainville Farm and Warner Farm is served in quiche and also prepped for roasting. Greenfield Public Schools Food Service

Local asparagus (aka Hadley Grass) from Plainville Farm and Warner Farm is served in quiche and also prepped for roasting.

Local asparagus (aka Hadley Grass) from Plainville Farm and Warner Farm is served in quiche and also prepped for roasting. Greenfield Public Schools Food Service

By LISA GOODRICH

For the Recorder

Published: 05-03-2024 12:28 PM

Nick Martinelli, CEO of Marty’s Local, began his career with a stint at the Farm School in Athol, hoping to learn how he might participate in the local agricultural economy. While conducting market research in 2015, he recognized there was a lot of demand for local food, yet many farms were not equipped to distribute it themselves.

Martinelli recalls, “I saw farmers driving past each other to deliver to customers, and I thought a business dedicated to consolidation, marketing, and delivery could be more efficient. That kind of work requires a whole day’s effort and is hard to do on the margins of the day.”

In that realization, Marty’s Local was born. Strong relationships with over 100 farmers and food producers in western Massachusetts, Vermont, the Hudson Valley of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine are the foundation for the business. These supplier partnerships are located mostly on the same routes as their customers, allowing them to be nimble and maintain freshness.

The distributor connects farms to restaurants, small retailers, farm stands and food co-ops in our region. As a small business themselves, Marty’s Local offers small buyers a lower minimum order than large distributors. Martinelli explains, “Our values align with the values of small buyers; yet working with larger buyers, like colleges, is an exciting opportunity to connect farms to a larger market.”

Leaning into relationships, instead of contracts, the Marty’s team talks with farmers in advance about what they’ll be able to supply, while they also talk with produce buyers and grocery buyers to ask about purchasing goals for the year. Martinelli says, “Then we do our best to meet these goals. We want the growers to set their pricing at a level that is going to earn them a living. We have to get it out to the market at a competitive price and make money, but our approach is different. The whole thing doesn’t work if our partners are going to be driven out of business.”

In 2019, Marty’s Local combined operations with Squash, Inc., adding more institutional customers, including local colleges and K-12 public schools, into the fold. Since that time, Marty’s has grown upon that foundation to serve over 30 schools and school districts in Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden, Worcester and Berkshire counties.

Sandra Thomas, director of marketing and customer support for Marty’s Local, explains that the company began by attending workshops to learn the needs of school nutrition directors, then continued to grow those relationships. Thomas says, “The question is, ‘How can we support those relationships to get more local food onto student plates?’ We listen and are attentive to the requests of the schools.”

For Massachusetts public schools, ordering anything from pencils to pizza crust follows a procurement process. Thomas credits Massachusetts Farm to School for helping to connect farmers, distributors, and school nutrition staff to deliver local food to school meals. 

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“They’re a great organization in terms of navigating the path for getting more local food into the school cafeterias,” Thomas says. “When school districts were awarded funding to spend specifically on minimally processed local foods, they were instrumental in walking us through the process to become an approved vendor for the program.”

For the 2023-2024 school year, Massachusetts received $3.5 million for the Northeast Food for Schools program. This one-time, federal grant supports schools in starting or expanding purchase of local food for their cafeterias and directly expanded access for local farms to supply local schools. Martinelli notes, “K-12 is a very different animal, and food service directors have a very hard job. The Northeast Food for Schools grant program makes it exciting to think about what’s possible, but school budgets remain a big challenge.”

Through listening and being responsive, Marty’s supports school teams in navigating local food purchases. Thomas says, “We try to keep it realistic in terms of what a school might actually buy. We’ve learned that schools sometimes face challenges with staffing, and so we offer products that are local and are minimally processed. For example, we provide schools with apples from Pine Hill Orchards, diced butternut from Plainville Farm, and shredded carrots, carrot sticks and carrot coins from Joe Czajkowski Farm.”

Over time, the requests and challenges from schools have become more creative. “If schools come to us with an idea, we can help source what they need,” Thomas says. “We are a one-stop shop and can provide lettuce for the salad bar, along with carrots, tomatoes, cottage cheese, salad dressing, and more.”

School meals are very different from generations past, while there are still very specific nutrition guidelines in place. School nutrition directors across our region, from Greenfield to Northampton to Springfield, incorporate food tastings into the rotation. These introduce students to seasonal produce, culinary treats from around the globe, and nutritious proteins. On occasion, schools may order products from Marty’s for these tastings. Those may range from snack-sized Cabot cheese and Sidehill Farm’s yogurt to kimchi from Real Pickles or Mi Tierra tortillas. Some of the items tested become staples in the cafeteria’s lineup.

For all the ways that Marty’s Local supports local farms, small food purveyors, retailers, restaurants, and markets, the company was a recipient of this year’s Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) Local Hero award. This award reflects how Marty’s Local has built a complex, technical, logistics business that also retains their commitment to deep relationships with serious heart.

“I enjoy the fact that students have the opportunity to learn that flavorful food is grown and made by people in their community,” says Thomas. “They have the chance to learn about what it takes to grow food, and that there is good food all around us year-round.”

Lisa Goodrich is Communications Coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, (CISA). To learn more about Marty’s Local, check out their website at www.martyslocal.com or for ordering information, email orders@martyslocal.com.