With many farm-to-school (F2S) programs, the transport of farm products to the schools can be the most challenging hurdle to overcome. There is no “one size fits all,” as individual circumstances differ greatly. Some of the issues to consider are:
- School district size
- Storage capacity of the schools
- The existence of central kitchens or satellite kitchens
- Existence of farmer cooperatives or networks
- Capacity of these networks to deliver
- Distance involved with deliveries
- Volume and types of products desired
- Amount of staff time needed to research and develop the distribution method.
Below are descriptions of four distribution methods, with the advantages and disadvantages of each. Whatever method is chosen, it should address the needs of both farmers and food service, in order to be successful over time:
- Direct Marketing – Food service staff buys direct from individual farmers.
- Farmer Cooperatives and Food Hubs – Food service staff work with a farmer cooperative program.
- Purchasing Local Food Through a Wholesaler – Food service staff order locally grown foods through a traditional wholesaler.
- Purchasing Regional Product at Farmers Markets – Food service staff purchase regional products from farmers markets.
1. Direct Marketing
In this model, the food service staff buys direct from individual farmers. Many school food service directors from around the country have initiated purchasing relationships with farmers and buy directly from them. There are many benefits to this procurement method, as food service staff can:
- Request specific products in the form and quantities they need
- Work out details and issues without a middle man
- Become familiar with what the farmer grows, and even request the farmers plant specific items for them
Buying from individual farmers may entail increased administrative work as well as paperwork. This can be a new process for a food service director, who has been ordering all or most of their produce from one broker in the past. There will be a transition from making one phone call to order products to now making multiple calls, having multiple invoices, and coordinating multiple deliveries. It may also be a new process for farms to engage in as well.
See the USDA Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs guide for more information on the regulations and requirements for procuring local foods.
2. Farmer Cooperatives and Food Hubs
In this model, farmers may pool their resources to develop a group distribution strategy. This may take the form of a producer cooperative, a food hub supported by nonprofit or government partners, or another network system that supports the marketing, aggregation and distribution of farm products.
- Buying from a farmers’ cooperative or food hub helps the school food service director reduce the time spent on the administrative tasks involved in placing and receiving orders, invoices and payment. In this way, ordering is done through one person representing multiple farmers and, in some cases, a single delivery is made for multiple farmers.
- Another advantage is that cooperatives and/or food hubs can generally offer a wider variety of produce and a more consistent supply than one individual farmer.
- Some farmer cooperatives and food hubs have also been able to purchase cold storage facilities, a delivery truck, and processing facilities that allow them to prepare value-added products. This is a particularly helpful strategy in colder climates with a limited growing season, and is a benefit for food service staff, as they greatly appreciate receiving a bag of broccoli florets instead of whole heads of broccoli that require additional preparation steps. Many school district food services do not have the labor or equipment necessary to do this kind of minimal processing.
The biggest disadvantage is these farmer networks do not exist in all areas of the country. Some new farmer networks and cooperatives have been formed as a result of the demand from institutional sales, but their numbers are limited.
This model also limits contact with the individual farmers growing for the schools.
In a food hub model, it is common for the hub’s staff (frequently employed by a non-profit organization) to handle some of the administrative tasks. One person may act on behalf of farmers, taking orders from food service and then contacting farmers to fill them. The school district then sends one invoice to the intermediary person who handles the paperwork.
3. Purchasing Local Food Through Wholesaler
In this scenario, food service staff works with a distributor who purchases from local farms.
- Since food service directors already purchase from brokers and/or distributors, this model allows them to maintain an existing relationship, as well as purchase other items that farmers may not be able to provide.
- This method also allows for centralized billing, delivery and payment but, in some cases, it may cut the farmer out of the communication loop. Food service directors should work to maintain relationships with farmers even when purchasing products through a distributor, whenever possible. (Tip: It is important for food service staff to contact the distributor well in advance to make arrangements for the coming growing season.)
- Large distributors sometimes find it is not economically feasible to deliver small quantities and schools may find small-scale distributors are best suited for this role.
While many wholesalers have worked very well with local farmers and serve as the perfect conduit between the farm and school system, the major disadvantage of buying through a distributor is that it is difficult to know how diligent the distributor is being in attempting to source local product. In some cases, buying from local farmers may or may not be a top priority for a distributor. One step food service staff can take is to request access to the buying records of the broker, showing product origins. It can also be a requirement, written into an agreement with the broker.
In this model it is still important that food service staff familiarize themselves with the availability and seasonality of the products in their region in order to make reasonable requests of the wholesaler who may be responsible for sourcing the products. To stay up to date with seasonality in Georgia, visit the Georgia Grown website. Also see the toolkit section on How to Best Collaborate with Farmer Partners for more tips.
4. Purchasing Regional Products at Farmers Markets
This strategy relies on farmers markets for purchasing locally grown products. In this model, the food service staff contacts the farmer one or two days in advance of the farmers market event to place an order by fax or phone. The farmer then brings that order to the farmers market, in addition to what he or she plans to sell that day through the market.
In most cases, schools use their own truck and driver, and a buyer from the school or district goes to the local farmers market to pick up the preordered products. In other instances, arrangements can be made with the farmer in advance, to have the products delivered directly to the school.
- Buying directly from the farmer has the advantage of working face-to-face with growers who know their competition is at the farmers market as well.
- It gives food service staff the opportunity to inspect the product quality and see first-hand what other products are available.
- Farmers benefit from this arrangement, because they not only fulfill their farmers market requests, but school orders, too. This may help lower the price for the product, as only one trip is needed for both orders.
- However, buying directly from farmers markets can also be time consuming, as this kind of shopping involves much more labor than phone calls to a distributor.
Wisdom from Others:
Distribution Models for Farm to School – Find further information about these four distribution models in the Washington F2S toolkit.
Farm to School in the Northeast – This toolkit was created for extension educators and community leaders, to help in making connections between farms and children, created by Cornell University’s Farm to School Program, NY Farms!, and the New York School Nutrition Association.
Growing the Links Between Farms and Schools – A how-to guidebook for farmers, schools and communities, created for the State of Pennsylvania, from the National Farm to School Network. Also see the Penn State University resource, “Going Local: Paths to Success for Farm to School Programs.”
Purchasing Michigan Products – This step-by-step guide provides tips on linking farms to schools via distribution, from Michigan State University.
Tips, Tools and Guidelines for Food Distribution and Safety – See the section on food distribution for additional background information, from the Oklahoma Farm to School toolkit.