Scaling-up to sell to schools

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Healthy school lunch choices
Healthy School Lunch Choices by USDA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Educators, dieticians and food service staff, farmers and local food advocates from across the country gathered in Cincinnati last week for the 2018 National Farm to Cafeteria Conference. They discussed how Farm to School initiatives enrich their communities, strengthen the food system and boost local economies.

Farm fresh food benefits not only students but the farmers that grow it for students. Scaling-up to sell to schools presents challenges, but farmers have achieved success through cooperation, collaborative relationships with buyers and year-round purchasing programs.

Farmers benefit from Farm to School

Institutions are a dependable market that provides farmers with timely and reliable payments. Clarity of a cafeteria’s needs allows farmers to plan production and delivery in advance. Schools streamline procurement, delivery and invoicing processes so farmers can focus their energy on producing high-quality food to nourish students.

Selling to schools is good for the local economy. Schools purchased $790 million of local food in 2013-2014. 42,587 Schools across the United States participated in Farm to School activities according to the USDA Farm to School Census. ¹ Case studies of public schools in Minnesota and Georgia found $82 of every $100 spent stayed in the local economy. ²

Some schools incorporate agriculture and nutrition education into Farm to School programming. Farmers that are passionate about inspiring the next generation of healthy eaters may have an opportunity to partner with educators to teach youth about what it takes to get food from the farm to the cafeteria.

Challenges selling to schools

Schools purchase a large volume of product. Small operations often struggle to produce a volume sufficient for foodservice needs. Cooperative marketing is a solution. An agricultural cooperative can aggregate multiple farms products to achieve intuitional volumes. A co-op offers farmer-members other benefits such as group food safety certifications, shared distribution and reduced costs on supplies. The Preston Growers Cooperative formed in response to the West Virginia Farm to School initiative. Working together, farmers achieve institutional volumes, maintain quality and offer a wider selection of products to local schools.

Farmers receive lower prices from institutional sales than other direct marketing channels. School buyers have tight budget constraints when making food purchasing decisions. The average school lunch cost $2.90 to prepare, only $1.07 of the total cost is allocated to food. The remaining $1.83 goes to labor, preparation and indirect costs. ³ Marketing Michigan Products: A Step-by-Step Guide from Michigan Farm to School is a free online resource that helps farmers prepare bid documents, price their products and negotiate contract agreements.

The school cafeteria is vacant during much of peak fruit and vegetable season. Minimal processing, such as freezing fresh food for future use, can be a solution. Cafeteria staff may process the food in the school cafeteria or coordinate with a food hub or co-packer to process the food in an approved facility. The Ohio Department of Education’s Summer Food Service Program provides a consistent market for farmers by purchasing food when school is not in session. Meals are served to youth enrolled in summer education programs at local YMCAs, libraries and other partner organizations.

Success

Farmers that have successfully sold to schools suggest developing working relationships with school dieticians, buyers and food service staff. Farmers should clarify vendor requirements, volume, packaging, delivery, insurance, payment terms and necessary food safety certifications prior to making the first delivery. Regular communication throughout the school year is vital to success.

For more information on Farm to School in Ohio visit http://farmtoschool.osu.edu/.

To learn about the Ohio State University Dining Service’s goal to purchase 40% local and sustainable Food by 2025 visit https://dining.osu.edu/sustainability/local-and-sustainable-food/.

References

  1. “Farm to School Census.” 2015. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Nutrition Service.
  2. Christensen, L., Jablonski, B., Stephens, L. & Joshi, A. “Economic Impacts of Farm to School: Case Studies and Assessment Tools.” Sept 2017. National Farm to School Network. Retrieved April 27, 2018 from http://www.farmtoschool.org/Resources/EconomicImpactReport.pdf.
  3. “School Lunch and Breakfast Cost Study-II.” 2006. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Nutrition Service.

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