Farm to School efforts proving markets for farmers

This article recently appeared in the 2/11/15 edition of the Farm Bureau Spokesman

By Darin Lynch, USDA Rural Development public information coordinator


IMG_1240The USDA’s most recent Farm to School Census indicates nearly half of the school districts in Iowa are or plan to participate in some sort of farm-to-school program.  One way schools make this farm connection is through the purchase of local foods for student lunches.


“School can be a tremendous place to learn about healthy lifestyles and making good food choices,” said Bill Menner, USDA Rural Development State Director in Iowa. “There are many USDA programs in place to that can help schools develop programing and services to connect today’s youth to the many exciting aspects of agriculture.”


Thanks to the efforts of the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Initiative and the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Coalition, schools in northeast Iowa are embracing the farm-to-school connection.


“Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness particularly focuses on schools as a site to influence broader community shifts toward healthy living and has spent much of its efforts on instituting active school wellness teams, encouraging physical activity, building school gardens, and providing nutrition education for students in the classroom,” said Teresa Wiemerslage, regional program coordinator, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in northeast Iowa, who coordinates the work of the coalition.


The mission of the coalition is to create opportunities for farmers to engage in the food system.  The coalition views schools as one of those opportunities in the rural area which consists of school districts ranging in size from 300 to 1,500 students.


The coalition has now been working to provide local foods to school districts for six years.  The efforts started out small and have grown significantly.  This fall nearly 20 school districts representing more than 12,000 students in northeast Iowa worked with Iowa Food Hub to purchase food from local farmers, while many other school districts made local food purchases directly from farmers.


Types of local foods purchased included apples, watermelon, broccoli, squash, sweet potatoes, peppers, pears, yogurt, sweet corn, cucumbers, frozen strawberries, cantaloupe, pork and turkey.


Wiemerslage said this fall some of the larger school districts were purchasing as much as 200 pounds of pork, 800 apples and 300 pounds of watermelon for just one meal.


The recent establishment of National Farm to School Month in October expands what used to be just a week each fall promoting homegrown school lunches.


The Decorah Community School District has been working with the coalition for five years and so far this year school year has purchased more than $10,000 in food, according to Chad Elliott, culinary specialist with the school district, and he says students are enjoying the local food options.


“We see students trying more fruits and vegetables,” Elliott said. “Some students have even helped pick or plant these products and they seem to have more interest in trying something they grew themselves. Local has a new tone among the students today, they know they are getting a fresher piece of fruit or being socially responsible by consuming these vegetables.”


Elliott said district staff enjoys preparing meals with the local food products and intends on working with the coalition for many years to come.


“Food service directors really started to embrace the farm-to-school connection and we saw they wanted to expand their purchases past the one week,” said Wiemerslage. “At the same time, the USDA was launching Farm to School month, so the timing for all of this coming together has been perfect.”


A report issued in November 2014 by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University suggests sales to local foods to grocery stores, restaurants, schools, residential food service operations, food hubs and other high-volume markets are rapidly eclipsing direct-to-consumers sales at farmers markets and from community supported agriculture arrangements.


“All of this activity spells good economic news for rural communities and farm-based businesses in Iowa,” said Leopold Center associate scientist Corry Bregendahl who coordinated the data collection project.  “Schools all across Iowa are finding the benefits of purchasing local foods.”


Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Coalition members have learned many lessons over the years.  Here are a few:


•    Start small.  If a school is new to local food shoot for two or three measureable goals such as sourcing all fresh apples locally from August to December, or hosting a local foods night each month.


•    Measuring success.  What will success look like, is it a purchasing goal of 20 percent local foods, or is it a specific dollar amount for local foods?   Make sure the food service provider is supportive of the goals.


•    Define Local.  Determine the definition of local to start identifying potential suppliers.  A larger radius may be needed to source greater quantities of product.


•    Identify local products you would like to serve.  Schools should identify the foods they would like to serve and quantities needed per month.  Identify potential farmers for those products and have discussions with potential suppliers about availability.


•    Farmers: Respond to bid requests.  Schools have procurement rules they need to follow.  If they contact you asking for prices and quantities, be sure to share.  They cannot buy from you if you do not respond.  You may consider sending them your pricelist at the beginning of the year.


Wiemerslage said the coalition continues their research into light processing for schools.  The fruit and vegetable processing project is funded by a USDA Farm to School grant and funds from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.


“We are working with two commercial kitchens in the area to investigate costs and logistics of providing shredded cabbage, cubed squash, diced sweet potatoes and frozen strawberries to schools,” Wiemerslage said. “We also worked with a sweet corn grower to provide a husked sweet corn product for schools.”


The price studies for this work are still being evaluated and coalition members continue to collaborate with local farmers and a new food hub to scale‐up production and investment in aggregation infrastructure to meet school needs. They are also working with the four rural school districts to expand their Farm to School programming in hopes of increasing their local food purchases by 200 percent in the coming year.


“Working with the Iowa Food Hub we believe we have created a school-food program model that has the potential to be replicated in other parts of the state and across the country,” Wiemerslage added. “Food service directors are using more local products in their meals, students are more excited about healthy, local foods and farmers and the communities we are working in are more interconnected.”


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