by Karen Binder
CARBONDALE, IL — Sure, the USDA’s Farm To School Program is about delivering the best quality food to students, but it’s also bringing new business opportunities to Illinois farmers and school food service staff.
There’s not much disagreement on the value and need of fresh and local food for school lunch programs, but how it gets into cafeterias can be a challenging process to navigate. Local producers and K-12 school representatives have been collaborating since earlier this year at Southern Illinois University Carbondale during a networking conference. It was at this conference they learned more about each other’s business needs and how the Farm To School Program works. The goal is start finding local producers who can sell the freshest, quality ingredients for school breakfasts, lunches, snacks and more. Yet, achieving this goal can be challenging.
“Farm To School means a lot to us,” explained Lindsey Blough of the Illinois State Board of Education. “That’s everything from the meals like breakfast, lunches and classroom and afterschool snacks to field trips, recipe contests, school gardens and other nutrition education opportunities.”
Schools are starting to buy more local products, Blough said. Of those which do, local food sources in 2012 provided 54 percent of fruit, 52 percent vegetables, 36 percent milk, 17 percent baked goods and 16 percent non-milk dairy.
Everyone says these are great numbers to start, but the meal budget numbers are more daunting, especially at the primary and secondary school levels.
“Schools don’t have a lot of money to spend. They’re on a limited budget,” said Sylvia Smith of the SIU College of Agricultural Sciences. “It’s an USDA program so you have to follow federal government rules.”
The Farm To School public schools in Illinois typically spend $1.50 per meal, considerably less than a state university and the $2.60 spent by SIU’s university housing department, for example. Helping farmers learn to recognize and understand these kinds of differences between public education entities is a primary focus of the networking. That’s why the USDA, University of Illinois Extension, Illinois Farmers Market Association and the Illinois State Board of Education have been working together on the opportunities.
An initial suggestion is simply to call a meeting between local producers, the kitchen staff and school administration to review produce availability, menu and storage options and cost. Smith pointed out that Unity Point Elementary District in Carbondale recently sourced cases of fresh tomatoes, frozen corn on the cob and chopped and frozen green peppers and onions for soups.
“It helps when you work with motivated people,” Smith said. “This wasn’t difficult, but there a lot of details.”
A local orchard owner, Wayne Sirles of Rendleman Orchards in Cobden, pointed out that his Union County business recently started working with national food distributor U.S. Foods to develop new customer accounts with government entities, such as universities and prisons, to promote sales of its local offerings. “At some point, you have to realize that local (food) is not always cheaper than the alternative,” he commented.
Chef Bill Connor agreed. He’s the head of SIU’s food service. While his time as an administrator could be freed to pick up produce and help keep costs down, at some point paid deliveries became necessary and coordinating a delivery time with producers doesn’t always fit a farmers’ schedule. “It takes some time to work things out, but you have to stick with it,” he added.
“What got me going was shopping at the farmers market for myself and buying peppers,” Connor said. “I’d forgotten about them but found them three weeks later and they were still good because they were that fresh to start. Now that can save me some money.”
An Amish producer started this semester delivering eggs from cage-free, free-range chickens, Connor said, adding that this producer is able to meet the quantity needs. “But not every small guy wants to do the paperwork. We think it’s well worth it,” he said.
by Karen Binder