by Linda Jean Rogge
We’ve all noticed the recent push to eat, drink and buy local. Dedicated farmers market shoppers have realized the benefits of local food for decades, and today we see chain grocery stores and restaurants advertising local offerings, right alongside the specialty markets which have been selling locally grown products for many years. Fortunately for growers, today there aren’t many food providers who aren’t interested in “local,” expanding the opportunities for farmers of all kinds. One growing market for local fruits and vegetables might be somewhere you haven’t considered before: your community schools.
The farm-to-school movement is growing, and you’ll be hard-pressed to attend a growers conference that doesn’t address this exciting opportunity. Some school districts have incorporated local food into their menus for years, and others are just beginning to explore the possibilities. In any case, there is excitement and interest in local offerings, benefiting your schools, your community, and your business.
Benefits of farm-to-school
There are many advantages to selling your products to schools. First, there’s demand and location. Chances are you are probably near a school or two, and if you live within a reasonable distance to a large metropolitan area, the need for local goods is likely a large one. There’s also opportunity to “even out” demand for your products. Because schools aren’t in full swing during the summer months, when outlets for your products may be more plentiful (depending, of course, on what you grow), selling to schools in fall and spring offers a chance to balance demand and extend the market for your goods. And don’t forget to consider summer: schools or child-care centers with summer programs need snacks and meals as much as they do during the regular school year.
Of course, schools and their “customers” get some great benefits too. Children are eating food that’s as fresh as they can get. There are more options on their plates. They eat their lunches! With a colorful menu of items local growers provide, schools can more easily meet the menu needs required of them by the government. Many schools also take the time to advertise where menu items come from, teaching kids about farming, food, and the people who work hard to grow it.
What you need to have in place
Regulations governing procurement of local foods come from the federal, state, and local levels, so policies will differ from school to school. But there are two common things most school districts will require you to have before they enter into an agreement to buy.
The first is liability insurance. This will help protect you in case someone gets sick as a result of consuming your products. If you are a small, new business, this insurance is going to be expensive at first, so make sure your insurance agent does a good job of shopping around and finding the best policy to fit your needs. This is a must-have for your business, so don’t ignore the insurance!
Second, most schools will ask for a copy of your food safety plan. This is a document outlining your policies and on-farm practices which keep food clean and safe for consumers. Food safety plans come in all shapes and sizes, and like business plans, vary according to your operation. They take some time to write and prepare, but when complete, offer a clear roadmap to you and your employees for following food-safety best-practices. There are online templates available to help you create a food safety plan, and these are often the subjects of conferences and workshops too. Check with your local growers association or farmers union for potential training opportunities.
Begin now and plan ahead
With insurance and a food safety plan in place or in the works, there is only one thing left to do. Make the call! Go online and search for your school district’s food service director, or simply call the school and ask. Like farmers, these folks are usually busy, so if you don’t get a reply to your first call or email, keep trying. Introduce yourself and tell them what you grow and where you grow it. Ask if the district is supplied with local food now, and what they may be interested in getting. Don’t be intimidated if the school is sourced by a large-scale distributor. Many schools are happy to take what you can provide and source the rest of what they need from the distributor. You won’t know until you ask!
If you have the flexibility to vary what you grow, before ordering spring seed talk to the food service director you are interested in selling to. Find out what they need and how much of it they can take. What vegetables do they have the hardest time procuring? What would they most like to have, but can’t usually find? Is there anything they can’t get enough of?
There’s a good chance, if your district is interested in sourcing local food, they will take all they can get of easy to serve items like apples, melons, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes. But if you grow radishes, beets, turnips, squash, and other “unusual” lunch-time fare, don’t rule out the farm-to-school program. In any case, providing goods to local schools is a great way to help both your community and your business grow.