Try selling to school food service managers. You may find you like the addition to your marketing scheme, and in the process, you can help kids learn to enjoy healthier foods — perhaps changing the eating habits of some children for life.
“One thing that’s growing right now in schools is vending machines. A lot of kids get a soda and a bag of chips, and that’s lunch. The number one vegetable served in schools is French fries. We can do better than that!” Dr. Tim Woods of the University of Kentucky told attendees at a well-attended Illinois conference earlier this year.
The biggest opportunity comes to growers who not only sell fresh local produce to the schools, but also help to educate our students about the benefits of fresh, local foods. These are our potential customers of the future. Their views matter.
Junior Iron Chef competitions with “Kentucky proud” products
In one unique program in Kentucky, Tina Garland started a Junior Iron Chef Competition in schools. “They use ‘Kentucky Proud’ products, and come up with recipes that will fit into a school cafeteria program,” explained Woods. Sixteen school districts are currently involved.
“The four top winners go to the Kentucky State Fair in the summer, where they meet with agricultural commissioners and chefs and are awarded scholarships to a good culinary school.
“It’s a very clever program. The kids become aware of what fruits and vegetables are grown in Kentucky, and find some quite delicious and interesting ways they can be used in school lunches,” commented Woods.
Another Kentucky program which could be emulated in other states was aimed at enticing schools to use more Kentucky-grown blueberries. The University of Kentucky Food Systems Innovation Center developed a recipe for a particularly nutritious and delicious oatmeal blueberry bar that has drawn raves from school food service personnel and kids alike, along with other blueberry recipes the kids eagerly pick up in the lunch line.
Blueberry growers are already piloting these products to 25 different schools, and expanding rapidly. “It’s a win/win situation for everyone,” stated Woods. “It could easily go statewide and add more blueberry products. The current project with the University of Kentucky involves kids actually sampling and rating a wide variety of possible blueberry recipes.”
Involving local growers is the key to successfully marketing local food. Growers who are willing to go into the classroom and talk about the value of the new foods the kids encounter at lunch, telling how these foods are produced, and explaining the challenges growers are facing to produce them, can have a life-long impact on the lives of some of the more receptive students.
“Lunch line education,” with signs for kids to look at while they wait in line, and educated cafeteria workers who are willing to talk to students about their choices as they go through the lunch line, can also make a difference.
The three C’s
“We stress the three C’s of Community, Cafeteria and Classroom,” explained Woods. We hope to help students to better engage in the community of agriculture around them, and hopefully enlist their parents, influencing their buying choices.”
In the Lexington, KY area, schools are emphasizing the sustainability of local agriculture. A “Sustainability Education Coordinator” teaches that when local growers sell to schools, it helps the sustainability of their local operations, keeping more growers producing fresh, local fruits and vegetables with their many benefits.
Selling to schools may not be for everyone, though, added Woods. In the first place, school food service budgets tend to be tighter, and schools are more like wholesale buyers in what they can be willing to pay. You can frequently get higher prices for your produce at CSAs, farmers markets, and if your timing is right, local auctions.
Second, if you live in a rural area with a relatively small population, three or four schools may each require, say, a half-bushel of tomatoes each, which need to be delivered directly to each school. The cost to growers in time, fuel and vehicle use may be prohibitive for such small amounts.
Do keep in mind, though, that school food service buyers are easier to work with in the fall, when growers have so many nutritious foods available, such as winter squash, sweet potatoes, white potatoes and kale which can be delivered together, than in spring, when product availability is typically more narrow.
Growers will want to take the initiative in talking to food service directors. Explain what you grow, how frequently you can deliver, and in what quantities. Remember, too, that schools aren’t necessarily looking for a season-long supplier. If you can supply a needed item or items for several weeks, or for special events, you can find that your services are greatly appreciated, and selling to schools can become one valuable facet of your produce marketing plan.