By: Bethany Hellmann
Purpose of this document: To inform four-season farmers and four-season incubator
farms of how, where, to whom, and when to sell and market their products.
The following section is on Schools only.
Selling to Schools
The poor health of our nation’s children is gaining a lot of publicity. U.S. childhood obesity is an epidemic with 31% of children overweight. There is a growing public concern that U.S. children need healthy, locally grown food in their school breakfasts and lunches. Therefore, an exciting opportunity exists for you, the local farmer, to sell your produce to schools and help break this vicious cycle of obesity in the United State. There are several U.S. programs that supply food to our nation’s children, which are open to buying local, fresh produce from farms like yours [Source 1]!
Nationwide, schools offer 4.7 billion lunches and 1.4 billion breakfasts to children every year. The national school lunch and breakfast programs that supplies the student meals is a $6.5 billion industry that is mostly supplied by large scale growers, and not by mid-scale or small-scale growers. However, parents, school administrators and food service directors are demanding more locally grown and healthier foods in school meals. The number and size of programs tying schools and local farmers has increased over the past several years [Source 2] [Source 3] [Source 4].
The National Farm-to-School Network website is an excellent place for farmers to gain information about how to sell directly to schools. Click on your state on the website’s United States map to find a Farm-to-School program near you. Your state’s profile may include contact information for your state’s Farm-to-School program representative, your state’s Farm-to-School website, a short description about Farm-to-School programs in your state, and links to more Farm-to-School resources in your state [Source 5].
What is a Farm-to-School Program?
The Farm-to-School Program, also known as the Small Farms/School Meals Initiative, began in 1997 as a cooperation of Federal, State and local governments, and farm and educational organizations to help small, local farmers sell their produce to K-12 schools, and to help K-12 schools buy produce from small, local farmers. In order for Farm-to-School Programs to work effectively, there must be cooperation among the USDA/Department of Defense (DoD) Fresh produce project, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service, State departments of agriculture and education and farm organizations. Including members of Congress to support the Farm-to-School program is also beneficial [Source 6].
There are over 2,000 Farm-to-School programs throughout all fifty U.S. states with 1,000 school districts participating. The most successful Farm-to-School programs supply healthy cafeteria meals, improve student nutrition, provide education about agriculture, nutrition and health, and support local and regional farmers. These programs may include student visits to farms or farmers markets, creating school gardens, fundraisers, inviting farmers to speak to students in the classroom, and composting programs to reinforce the Farm-to-School program [Source 3] [Source 5] [Source 6].
Farm-to-School programs differ by region. The program is driven by the agriculture and seasonality of crops found in your region. Warmer climate farms may provide an entire salad bar, while colder climate farms may only be able to provide some ingredients for a meal or snack. Your Farm-to-School program may look very different from other programs in the nation or even in your region. You may supply between one and twelve farm products. You may supply schools year round or only for a few months. There is not one single way to operate a Farm-to-School program. Each program is custom fit to the needs and restrictions for each school and participating farms. Four-season farmers have a distinct advantage when selling to schools. A four-season farmer can provide more produce during the winter months, when school is in session, and other farms are not producing. Schools really like buying from four-season farmers for this reason [Source 1] [Source 4]!
The organizational form of a Farm-to-School depends on what works best for both the school and the farmer. Many times, farmers will form a cooperative to better supply produce to the schools. If either group becomes uncomfortable with the organization, the collaboration will likely fall apart. The chosen organizational structure tends to evolve over time as conditions like amount of produce sold, leadership or school finances change [Source 2].
Schools can purchase Department of Defense (DoD) Fresh produce with commodity entitlement funds, Section 4, 11 and general school funds. Currently, $50 million in commodity entitlement funds are given to states each year to purchase produce from DoD Fresh. DoD has also established Farm-to-School partnerships between local farmers, state Departments of Agriculture and Education and school food services. Twelve states including AL, MS, NC, NM, TX, WV, KY, MI, CA, NY, NJ, OK, and the territory of Puerto Rico work with DoD Fresh. DoD Fresh requires coordination with federal, state and local organizations. In general, the state Departments of Agriculture or non-profit organizations identify farmers and farmer organizations and connect them with DoD Fresh brokers.
A DoD Farm-to-School partnership among farmers, schools and brokers begins with a planning meeting that DoD coordinates between state agriculture and school food service personnel. Farmers, district-level food service staff, farmer marketing groups and state nutrition staff may also attend this planning meeting. The school’s produce needs and farmer’s supply ability are discussed and a match is determined. If both parties agree, a Farm-to-School partnership is established. DoD remains an active participant in the Farm-to-School programs through negotiating fair produce prices and ensuring a fair price for farmers. DoD also ensures all required certifications, quality standards and post-harvest requirements are met. DoD is also involved in produce size, grade, packaging and processing of value-added produce, and only buys Grade A produce. DoD helps states monitor crops for product quality, and forms partnerships with states and schools to promote purchasing fresh, local produce from local farmers. DoD assists states and farmers to ensure fresh, high quality produce delivered to schools, but relies on current distribution systems for delivery. DoD directly pays the farmer or farmer organization and then bills the state, county or school district [Source 7].
There are many successful Farm-to-School programs across the United States. For instance, a concerned parent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) persuaded the school’s Food Service Director to improve the unpopular salad bar that few students chose. After locally grown, fresh fruits and vegetables were introduced in the salad bar, many more students utilized it. Because of this success, a total of 15 SMMUSD elementary, junior high and high schools participate in the Farm-to-School project and boast salad bars that are entirely made of produce from local farmers markets. This project owes a special thanks to the four season farmers in the area which stock the salad bar with regionally grown produce year round. Additionally, the Farms to Philadelphia school program is set to exceed $200,000 during its first two years. Pennsylvania farm produce is being used at 11 local schools three days a week as part of a special kindergarten initiative. The students receive nutritional and educational benefits while local farmers benefit financially [Source 2] [Source 4].
Where do I Find Support for my Farm-to-School program?
The National Farm-to-School Network is an organization that supports Farm-to-School programs throughout the nation. The Farm-to-School Network provides free training and technical assistance, information services, networking and support for policy, media and marketing activities. These services are provided throughout all 50 states. The National Farm-to-School Network works to ensure the health of all school children, farms, the environment, economy and communities. For more information about Farm-to-School programs in your area visit their site. Both national and state programs currently exist [Source 5].
Farm-to-School programs are also supported and encouraged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), community groups, non-profit organizations, state departments and farmers. The USDA has hosted several workshops across the country to help bridge the connection between schools and local farmers. Current Farm-to-School programs success has spread through the non-profit, farm and school communities through word of mouth, conferences and coverage by the press [Source 3].
Is there Financial Assistance for my Farm-to-School program?
If you would like to participate in a Farm-to-School program, you can contact the USDA for financial assistance. The USDA’s most relevant Farm-to-School grants are the Rural Business Enterprise Grants (RBEG), Rural Business Opportunity Grants (RBOG) and Cooperative Services of the Rural Business Cooperative Service.
The Rural Business Enterprise Grants (RBEG) provides grants for small and emerging rural businesses to assist with business development. More information on RBEGs is found here. The Rural Business Opportunity Grant (RBOG) Program provides grants for sustainable economic development in rural communities. The grants may be used for food-related business development and economic development planning. For more information about the RBOG, click here.
The USDA operates a Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFPCGP) that has helped fight food insecurity through funding food projects that help low-income communites find food self-suffiency since 1996. More information about CFPCGP is found here.
Additionally, the USDA operates the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), which provides competitive grants to non-profits and farmers interested in creating new food markets. More information, including SARE grants listed by state, can be found here. [Source 4].
How do I Start a Farm-to-School Program near my Farm?
A Farm-to-School program can be initiated by farmers, schools, parents, community groups, principals, students, school board members, teachers or any combination of these groups. The school food service personnel are integral to the design and implementation of any Farm-to-School program. You, the farmer, may help initiate a “bottom up” program with the help of concerned parents, teachers or community members. You may also be approached to participate in a Farm-to-School program by the school board or administration through a “top down” project. The success of a Farm-to-School program is greatly increased when many different groups and individuals are included [Source 6].
One effective way to get the necessary parties talking about a Farm-to-School program is to conduct a Town Hall Meeting. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service has published a Step-by-Step guide to conducting a Town Hall Meeting in its Small Farms/School Meals Initiative Town Hall Meetings: A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Bring Small Farms and Local Schools Together Manual found here. This manual provides guidelines for structuring a meeting including who to invite, the roles and responsibilities of specific attendees, type of facility to use, how to invite the guests, materials to distribute, how to obtain media coverage for the event and more. This town hall meeting manual is a very good resource for anyone planning a town hall meeting centered on bringing local farmers and local schools together. This town hall meeting may help jumpstart a Farm-to-School program in your region [Source 6].
You may also start a Farm-to-School program by speaking directly with school personnel. Additionally, a local school or USDA representative may approach you and your farm to participate in a Farm-to-School program.
Are there other Options for Selling to Schools?
There are alternatives to official Farm-to-School programs for farmers that want to sell produce to local schools. Each farmer-school relationship operates a little differently depending on the needs of the schools and the ability of the farmers to fulfill those needs. How you choose to operate your farmer-school relationship relies on your organizational structure and how you answer the following questions: How big is the school district? Does the school district have a central kitchen or satellite kitchens? What is the storage capacity in the schools? Are you part of a farmer cooperative or network that collectively delivers your produce? How far away is your farm from the delivery destination? How much and what type of produce are you delivering? Is there staff that will research and develop the distribution method? Below is a description of different ways in which Farm-to-School programs may operate [Source 7].
The school’s food service staff may buy produce directly from your individual farm. These direct sales to schools are most common with private schools. There are several advantages to this method. Your farm may be able to supply the food service staff with specific products in a specific form that works best for their kitchen. You can talk with the food service staff directly to work out the details of your produce sales without a middle man, saving time and, likely, increasing accuracy. The food service staff becomes very familiar with what you grow at your farm and may put in special requests for produce. Additionally, since your individual sales to a school may be relatively small, the school may not be required to obtain other bids for your produce sale. There are some disadvantages for schools that buy from individual farms. Buying directly from several individual farms creates more administrative tasks and paperwork for the food service director than buying from a produce broker who represents many farms. Additionally, you, the farmer, cannot supply the same produce diversity as a produce broker.
If you join a farmer cooperative, or informal network of farmers, you can develop a group distribution strategy which reduces administrative tasks for the food service director. You can delegate one person to represent many farms and work together to provide one delivery to the school. Your cooperative can offer a more consistent, wide variety of farm goods than is possible from just your individual farm. Your cooperative may purchase cold storage facilities, a delivery truck and a facility to process value-added products like washing, cutting and bagging vegetables for salad bars. However, farmer cooperatives do not exist throughout all regions of the nation, and they limit farmers’ contact with the schools. If a farmer cooperative is not available near your farm, you may consider appointing a staff person from a non-profit organization to handle administrative tasks for the food service director [Source 7].
Schools may also elect to pick up their order from you at your local farmers market. The food service staff places their produce order a few days before market. You, the farmer, can then bring the school’s order to the farmers market for pick up. The school uses its own truck and driver to pick up their order. This option is only viable when farmers market season overlaps with the school year. School staff likes to buy at the farmers market because they can inspect your products’ quality, and they can browse to see what’s available at other farmers’ stalls. You, the farmer, benefit because you combine your school and farmers market delivery into one, possibly lowering your costs. However, schools may prefer the less time-consuming method of direct delivery to their school’s kitchen.
Another option is to sell your produce to a distributor or broker who then distributes it to the schools’ food services. This centralizes the billing, delivery and payment for the schools, but removes any direct communication between you, the farmer, and the schools. Some distributors are better than others at obtaining local produce. Some distributors are more concerned with supplying the least expensive product than seeking to use local products. However, other distributors are dedicated to buying fresh, local food from local farms. It is important to do some research to see which distributors consistently buy locally. You may even request to see the buying records of your broker before doing business with them [Source 7].
What are the Benefits to Selling to Schools?
Selling to schools has many benefits for both you, the farmer, and the schools to which you sell and the local community. Selling to schools opens up a marketing venue for parents and students to learn about opportunities to buy from your farm at farmers markets, CSAs and local grocery stores. You, the farmer, can strengthen the relationships you have with your community through participating in a Farm-to-School program. You may also participate in local media coverage on farmer-school programs to obtain free publicity for your farm. Fresh produce in school meals helps students to develop life-long healthy eating habits, reduce risk of diseases like obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Students are much more likely to consume fresh, locally grown produce when it is readily available. Nutrition and food education for students is reinforced when they learn where and how their food is grown. Additionally, selling to local schools keeps that revenue circulating in the local economy providing jobs and keeping agricultural lands open [Source 2].
What are the Challenges to Selling to Schools?
Farmers face many challenges when selling to schools. Most schools have limited budgets and do not manage their own kitchens. Frequently, multiple decision-makers are involved in the buying and preparing of school lunches. However, private schools have more flexibility and may be easier to work with than public schools [Source 4].
School food services may require certain packaging in specific counts, weights and/or sizes. Check with your local school district to make sure you can meet their specifications. You, the farmer, will likely be expected to deliver once or twice a week. Many school districts prefer that your fresh produce is minimally processed before it reaches them. They may require that you wash, cut and bag the produce. Some school districts may not want to purchase locally grown produce if it costs more than other available food. Also, four season farmers have a distinct advantage of selling produce from their hoop houses throughout winter months and other farmers’ off-seasons.
You may choose to deliver the produce to the school personally each week. You may also team up with other growers that supply to the school district to purchase a shared delivery vehicle.
There may be some concerns over food safety in selling and handling fresh produce, although this has not been a major issue for most of the farm-to-school programs. Growers may need to purchase liability insurance of $1 million in aggregate to satisfy the school districts’ requirements. To overcome children’s resistance to trying fruits and vegetables, make sure that they are fresh and attractively displayed. Most salad bars become more popular with children when stocked with fresh, locally grown produce [Source 2] [Source 4]!
How can my farm compete with the commodities market?
The USDA commodity products, mostly processed dairy and meats, are sold very cheaply to schools. Local farmers find it difficult to compete with such low prices. However, the Farm-to-Schools programs are encouraging the school food services to purchase more locally grown produce from local farmers.
The U.S. Department of Defense DoD Fresh program purchases produce from local farmers and sells it to schools in the same state. However, locally grown produce costs the same or oftentimes more than produce DoD can buy from distributors. You, the local farmer, can make your produce more attractive to DoD Fresh by washing, cutting and/or bagging your produce prior to sale. You can also accentuate the freshness of your produce to DoD Fresh and provide regional varieties unique to your area like red chard in California, collard greens in Mississippi, or blood oranges. These unique items are generally not sold by produce distributors. If you are able to sell large volumes of produce to DoD Fresh at the state level, the produce can then be sold to schools at very reasonable prices. DoD lets the school food service directors know which fruits and vegetables they bought locally when providing them the offerings list [Source 2].
What is the Farm-to-Cafeteria Conference?
The National Farm-to-Cafeteria Conference is in its sixth year. This conference is designed for participants to network and build skills necessary to bring fresh local produce to local schools, childcare settings, colleges and universities, hospitals, prisons and more. This conference gathers farmers, food service professionals, educators, policy makers, government agency representatives, non-profit representatives, entrepreneurs, students and other individuals interested in expanding the Farm-to-Cafeteria movement. The conference includes skill building workshops, field trips to farms and institutions, and networking opportunities. For more information, visit their site. [Source 8].
Are there Resources I can Give to Schools and Food Service Personnel?
You, the farmer, may have a connection with a local school and/or school food service personnel who want to buy from your farm but are unsure of the process. You may direct these schools to the following resources:
Eat Smart – Farm Fresh! A Guide to Buying and Serving Locally-Grown Produce in School Meals. USDA Food and Nutrition Services, December 2005.
Healthy Farms Healthy Kids: Evaluating the Barriers and Opportunities for Farm-to-School Programs. Andrea Misako Azuma and Andrew Fisher, Community Food Security Coalition. January 2001.
Small Farms/School Meals Initiative Town Hall Meetings: A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Bring Small Farms and Local Schools Together. USDA Food and Nutrition Services, March 2000.
There are many other resources available for school food personnel online, and the increasing popularity of fresh, local food in school lunches is helping to make the Farm-to-School movement rapidly expand. In some situations, it is best for you, the farmer, to take the initiative and let schools know you are interested in selling them fresh produce. However, you may also have schools and school districts contacting you with interest to buy from your farm!
Are there more resources for me?
There are many more online resources available to you, the farmer, which help local farmers sell produce to local schools. A good place to start your research is the National Farm-to-School Network publications page found here. You may also research the resources cited in this document. The U.S. Farm-to-School programs are growing and could use dedicated, local farmers just like you [Source 5]!
1) Community Food Security Coalition website. Accessed May 28, 2012.
2) Feenstra, G. and Kalb, M. Farm to School: Institutional Marketing. UC Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program, and Community Food Security Coalition. Accessed May 28, 2012.
3) Azuma, A. M. and Fisher, A. Healthy Farms Healthy Kids: Evaluating the Barriers and Opportunities for Farm-to-School Programs. Community Food Security Coalition. January 2001. Accessed June 3, 2012.
4) Sales to Restaurants and Institutions. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Outreach, USDA- National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) website. Accessed March 18, 2012.
5) Farm-to-School website. Accessed March 25, 2012.
6) Small Farms/School Meals Initiative: Town Hall Meetings, A Step-by-Step Guide on how to bring Small Farms and Local Schools Together. United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services. Accessed June 3, 2012.
7) Eat Smart-Farm Fresh! A Guide to Buying and Serving Locally-Grown Produce in School Meals. USDA Food and Nutrition Services, December 2005. Accessed June 3, 2012.
8) Farm to Cafeteria Conference website. Accessed May 27, 2012.