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Schools don't typically go directly to farms to buy food. There's a complex bidding process, and local food distributors play an important role. They streamline food delivery in refrigerated trucks, reducing traffic on campus, and ensuring maximal use of transportation by pooling multiple deliveries. In Ulster County, seven school districts came together to bid out before the school year on nonperishable products that they can share. It increased the quality of their food purchases as well as each school's clout within the system. Not beholden to the lowest bid, they can accept local foods if the cost difference is minimal.
Vendors and farmers have to be USDA GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified. "Farmers should understand what requirements institutional buyers may have—such as farm food safety certification—and how to market to them," explains Glenda Neff, Co-Coordinator of Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS). To address this barrier, FINYS has developed a Market Readiness "Train the Trainers" Program for agencies and non-profits that work with farmers, to help them understand what they need to have in place to sell to institutions. "If we're feeding lots of young children," says Van Dam, "we want to make sure it's a safe product."
DeWan says pricing can be another challenge for schools and farmers. "Are the schools in a position to purchase food, whether it be from a distributor or a farmer at the price that the farmer needs to receive in order to have a viable farm business?" Schools receive between 29 and 43 cents a lunch for students paying full price and up to $3.30 a meal for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. "It can be tough for some farmers to meet [a school's] price points while making a profit," McGuire explains. And the school cafeteria can become isolated from the surrounding economy of local growers and makers as food service administrators try to balance the books.
McGuire notes that more and more people are recognizing the benefits of farm to school and that's helping to institutionalize these activities. "We're seeing that in the explosion of school gardens across the country and in the growth of nutrition education in classrooms. This tremendous support from community members has translated into a lot of movement on the local and state policy level."
New York school districts recently got an additional boost when the state was one of eight selected by the USDA to participate in a pilot program allowing them to use more of their federal reimbursement money (the money spent by schools on certain kinds of food that the USDA reimburses) for unprocessed fruits and vegetables purchased from local farmers. And the program was augmented by an additional $2,000 per school added to those commodities funds.
"It's important for the health and wellbeing of the kids to have an understanding of the food system, to reduce our carbon footprint, and for all of us to recognize the role that agriculture plays in our communities," says DeWan. "We're in a transitional moment, an exciting one. It's a perfect time to be having this conversation, working out some of the challenges, and to engage all the stakeholders."