Insiders provide tips to help farmers access farm-to-school market
By Kelli Boylen
Farm-to-school can be a good market for vegetable growers, orchards and value-added producers. These insights can help you get started.
Food Safety First
“Schools have a responsibility to serve safe food, and that is their top priority in sourcing food,” said Jane Jewett of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. There is extra paperwork for farmers, but many find it worth the effort, she said.
If you’re making a value-added product to sell to schools, you should research food safety regulations for your state to be sure your product can be used in schools, Jewett recommended. You can learn about food safety standards from your local Department of Health, state food regulatory agency and/or your state Department of Agriculture.
Schools participating in the school nutrition programs (National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program) must comply with all sanitation and health standards as required by applicable state agency and/or local laws and codes, which vary by location. For example, in Wisconsin, intact fruits and vegetables can be sold to schools, as well as vegetables cut during harvesting, such as lettuce and cauliflower when it involves rough field dressing only.
“It is very important to know the regulations and have your ‘ducks in a row’ before you approach a school,” Jewett said. “Make it a point to educate yourself and know how to answer questions about on-farm food safety before you talk to a district’s food service director.”
She noted that regulations vary not only from state to state, but also from product to product. “It can quickly get confusing. Don’t give up right away; take the time to make sure you understand the regulatory landscape for your products.”
It is also necessary to understand the scale and needs of the school district you want to approach. Jewett said many larger schools purchase local produce only through distributors, while smaller schools may source directly from farmers. In a K-12 setting, food producers should contact the food service director. At a college, setting up a meeting with the general manager, executive chef or operations manager would be a good place to start.
Some states have online listings of schools that participate in Farm to School programs. You can find state-level Farm to School program information and contacts at the National Farm to School Network: www.farmtoschool.org.
The Minneapolis School District serves more than 35,000 student lunches a day. The district is starting its fifth school year with a farm-to-school program, working with small to mid-size, sustainable growers in the area to incorporate a variety of vegetables and fruit into school meals. This year, more than 15 local and regional farms (within a 250-mile radius of the city) are providing everything from fresh honeydew melon to sweet potatoes. The district introduces new foods on trial-runs to see students’ response. The first Thursday of every month is a meal made entirely from local foods.
The biggest mistake growers and producers make is to not consider exploring the farm-to-school market, according to Kate Seybold, farm to school coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools. “It can seem very intimidating but it can be done,” she said. “There is definitely a learning curve for farmers who are new to this. But, we work hard to be great communicators and make it happen.”
The district holds public meetings to reach out to growers and potential partner-producers. It has even helped producers develop the necessary food safety plans.
Seybold said a challenge for some producers who approach the district to sell their products is the sheer scale of what they need—imagine 900 pounds of carrots or 600 pounds of cucumbers each week—and when they need it, based on the school menus. “This is much different than growing for a CSA or a farmers’ market,” she said. “But we work hard to make it a feasible and positive program for our farmers.”
The district is willing to split a product between two farmers if a single farmer can’t supply the weekly orders. Seybold said they try to maintain some flexibility with their menu to allow farm-to-school items to be featured when they are harvested.
Minneapolis Public Schools works with a produce processing company. Farmers deliver their produce to the processor, and the processor delivers the produce to the schools. This system provides farmers an opportunity to work with wholesale buyers and possibly tap into other wholesale markets.
Market for Seconds
One of the big advantages of selling to schools is that it can give unmarketable products a market, said Seybold. For example, their seller of butternut squash had sold primarily only to co-ops in the past. Those customers wanted unblemished squash in the two- to three-pound range. The farmers would often dispose of larger squash or ones that had cosmetic flaws, even though those were perfectly good food. Since the schools serve the squash cooked to students, it doesn’t matter so much how they look raw.
Another example is a local poultry company that didn’t have as much of a market for its drumsticks as it did for wings or breasts. “The students love eating drumsticks though, so it is a win-win,” Seybold said.
The Minneapolis School District also seeks out smaller apples that are not easily marketable, which fit in younger students’ hands better. Seybold added that slightly blemished apples can be processed to make apple-based desserts, opening up a market for farmers with seconds.
Dave and Carolee Rapson and their family have been making Country View Dairy yogurt on their farm near Hawkeye, Iowa, for about five years. Many schools in Northeast Iowa and some in Wisconsin and Minnesota serve Country View Dairy products.
Bob Howard, director of marketing and sales at Country View, said when they first started marketing to schools, they made direct contact with districts in about a 20-mile radius from their farm since they delivered directly to those schools. Now, they mostly work with distributors and the Iowa Food Hub, a nonprofit working to connect farmers, families and food grown close to home that acts as a distributor, among other roles.
A unique added feature Country View offers is tours of the farm and processing area where the yogurt is made, bringing an educational aspect to its farm-to-school program as well.
During the schoolyear, about 30 percent of the dairy’s yogurt goes to 25 public schools and 10 colleges. While many schools purchase the yogurt in 5-pound containers, some require smaller portions.
“One challenge we have had is we package in 6-ounce cups, and school lunch guidelines call for a 4-ounce serving,” Howard said. “With the extra labor and packaging costs for the smaller sizes, the profit margin gets too tight.” Schools with enough staff can portion out the smaller servings, but for some districts that is not possible.
Country View has held taste tests in local schools, and the students prefer their yogurt, Howard said. Having their yogurt in schools has boosted their grocery store sales as well, since students recognize the name and ask for it at home, he added.
Assistant Director of Campus Sustainability at Luther College Maren Beard says when Luther was buying yogurt from a regional distributor they were purchasing 600 to 700 pounds a week. Once they switched to Country View yogurt about four years ago, “almost instantly our purchasing went up to 1000 pounds a week because our students loved it so much.”
Working with Colleges
Some universities operate their own food services, others, such as Luther, are run by a food service provider. But Beard said the success of a local food program mostly “relies upon the passion of students, administrative support at the college level, and dedication on behalf of the dining services leadership and staff. Also, having access to local products at a reasonable price is important.”
Beard recommends finding schools and institutions which are already friendly to the idea of farm to school sourcing. Luther College created a five-year goal in 2008 to source 35 percent of their food from local sources. By 2013, they had exceeded that goal.
“Many people in our local food system claim that Luther having set that goal is really what has helped push local food initiatives along in this region,” Beard said. “I think it has been a combination of things, but it definitely made a difference that one of the largest purchasers of food in the region made such a commitment.” Luther serves about 4,000 meals a day.
“It is important for farmers to understand that food safety and traceability are becoming increasingly important for institutional food purchasers,” she added. “Many purchasers will soon be, if they aren’t already, requiring GAP certification.” GAP is a voluntary audit for Good Agriculture Practices. (See box for resources.)
Luther College is currently working toward the goals of buying 75 percent of its dairy, 50 percent of its meat (beef and pork), 20 percent of its poultry, and 25 percent of its produce from local sources.
“Most institutional food services are used to dealing with a few vendors and only have to process a few invoices. Buying from local farms challenges that structure and takes a willing partner on the purchasing side of things to be able to make things happen,” Beard noted.
In addition to understanding food safety regulations, the Wisconsin Local Food Marketing Guide recommends checking your liability insurance. When you change markets, such as going from on-farm sales to serving schools, your insurance agent needs to be informed. Ask if you are covered if someone gets sick from food you sold.
The USDA does not require any specific amount of coverage, but school districts, states, distributors and food service management companies might. The guide recommends learning about insurance requirements for each of these entities before deciding to enter the farm-to-school market.
Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to farming publications. She lives in Iowa.
From the September | October 2016 Issue