Thank you to Meredith and Hannah for the opportunity to write the blog post below for The Edible Schoolyard Network!
While it is often challenging to venture from the daily demands of running a school food service operation to begin something new or develop an existing program, regional procurement is one improvement that is well worth the effort! The resulting improvement in the quality of school meals, participation, and employee job satisfaction are just the beginning. Local procurement also boosts the local economy, can reduce environmental impacts related to long distance transport, and potentially decreases cost through supply chain simplification.
When considering buying regional foods, first realize that your district is completely wonderfully unique. No two districts are exactly alike and no two approach procurement in the exactly same fashion. There are many ways to procure from local producers. Smaller districts might connect directly with farms, while others might partner with nonprofits who source from local producers or work with a regional distributor. Key practices that will help all districts to procure more local food include creating a more seasonal school menu, developing the relationship and communication with your distributor, and encouraging food service to get involved in the local food and farming community.
Creating a seasonal menu would be daunting for the concerned citizen who has a healthy budget and a family to cook for, but it is even more challenging for school districts with limited budgets, strict federal nutrition guidelines, and thousands of mouths to feed every day. But you can do it! Creating a seasonal produce chart organized by vegetable subgroup, shown below, can help. Per federal guidelines, school districts must provide a variety of vegetables per week, and this chart helps menu planners maximize seasonal foods by their subgroup and their corresponding color, and nutritional benefits. Your nearest land grant university likely has a list of crops in season. Start there and cross-reference the list with the varieties your distributor is able to find. Remember, you are the customer, so let your distributor know what your needs and priorities are with local procurement.
Record-keeping of local purchases can provide valuable metrics to leverage procurement in subsequent seasons or years. Distributors are more frequently able to provide a weekly or monthly report to the food service department showing which produce items are sourced within the state or region. Mapping local farms also helps track from what regional areas foods are coming and serves as a great educational tool!
Opening the lines of communication between integral farm to school players, such as farmers, distributors, local food nonprofits, and food service is invaluable to making local procurement a success. A great way to do this is to organize a farm to school focus group. Furthermore, involving food service personnel in the local food scene in your town helps to further efforts to improve school meals. Such efforts could include Chefs Move to Schools events, garden-to-cafeteria initiatives, and cross-disciplinary partnerships with local nonprofits like Slow Food chapters or the US Green Building Council. When food service staff is embraced in the food community, the teamwork that results produces nothing short of awesome results!
Growing regional procurement is just like building the relationships imperative to making it a success: a little at a time. It’s fine to start small with pilot schools or with one local farm. Challenges will arise, so be sure to stay focused on the myriad of long-term benefits that come from reorganizing procurement to invest in your very own regional food supply.