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Farm to School: Getting Started: Meet the Challenges

By Stephanie Heim, Minnesota State Lead
According to the March 2011 Farm to School Survey conducted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in partnership with the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, four big challenges exist for those starting farm to school initiatives.

Extra Labor and Prep Time

Sandie Rentz, Food Service Director of Wadena-Deer Creek Public Schools, and Connie Jopp, Nutritional Services Supervisor of St. Cloud Area School District, both state the extra labor requirement for additional preparation time are the most significant barriers they face.
In the Hopkins School District, Barb Mechura states the district is paying more in labor costs, but paying less in food costs as they purchase more whole foods and fewer convenience foods.
Offering additional trainings for school foodservice can help increase efficiency. Some Minnesota schools have begun to operate like restaurants. For example, each time there is a 10 minute break, foodservice staff begin to prep foods for the week ahead.
Furthermore, some Minnesota schools have worked out relationships with distributors to get local produce in a form they can use. Rosemary Dederichs, Director of Nutrition at Minneapolis Public Schools works in collaboration with produce supplier Cre8it, Inc., which supplies pre-cut cabbage, potatoes, squash, cranberries and other farm to school foods.


Surprisingly, for foodservice directors that had purchased a few food items locally, cost had not proven to be a problem. Foodservice directors reported that locally purchased costs ranged from being virtually the same cost to being slightly higher or lower in cost.
Some schools such as Winona Area Public Schools have used their a la carte line to introduce locally-produced or organically-grown products. Students have been willing to pay the higher price for these items.
Willmar Public School have looked at the lunch menu over a period of time, and served less expensive meals on some days to offset the higher cost of local foods on other days.
Never underestimate the power of creativity! Ridgeway Community School, with the help of Caroline van Schaik at the Land Stewardship Project, has introduced some truly innovative ways of purchasing local, sustainably raised foods. For a quick, fun read on the topic you are bound to enjoy, see Ways to Buy, Ways to Pay (60 K PDF).

Finding Farmers

Many foodservice staff are concerned with the time required to connect with farmers.
A forager can be a very valuable asset for getting a farm to school program started. This is someone who works with the farmer and foodservice staff to make sure everyone’s needs are met. For more details, See What Is a Forager?
Two examples from rural and urban Minnesota:
  • Rich farmland surrounds the two Dover-Eyota Public Schools in rural southeastern Minnesota, yet Food and Nutrition Director Carrie Frank struggled to find a produce supplier to deliver locally grown fruits and vegetables in the relatively small volume required to feed 1,142 students each day. Carrie’s luck changed on the day she stopped by a produce stand in nearby Rochester to purchase a dozen ears of fresh sweet corn for herself. A simple question posed by Carrie to the vendor, “Have you ever thought of selling to schools?” opened up a new and wonderful relationship with her current supplier, Produce Plus, located in Eyota, Minnesota.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jean Ronnei, Nutrition Services Director of St. Paul Public Schools purchased 110,000 pounds of locally grown produce through its distribution/processing partner in the first six weeks of the 2009-2010 school year. This is an approach that works well for meeting St. Paul’s need for large volumes of pre-cut product.
Some foodservice staff like the idea of using a food distributor to procure local food, but are concerned that they then lose connection to the farmer. The notion of connecting kids to how their food is grown is a major motivating factor for many of the schools expressing interest in farm to school programs. Having the “story of the farm” and the farmer is important to Minnesota foodservice directors.

Liability and Food Safety

We wanted to provide a consistent message to schools and farmers about regulations and food safety. So we partnered with Minnesota Departments of Agriculture and Health to develop fact sheets for Minnesota institutions interested in purchasing locally grown food. Download them from the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) website: Local Food Fact Sheet Series.
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