Collaborating with Farmers/Growers

Planning ahead is one of the most important parts in collaborating with farm partners. See the 9409115_lGetting Started section of this toolkit for more tips and resources for the planning process.

Paying close attention to the following topics can also make communication between school food service staff and farm partners/grower(s) clearer and more effective:

  • Evaluate past menus
  • Include a chart or list of items by season to specify which foods you would like to feature throughout the year
  • Meet with growers ahead of time to check product availability
  • Ask for a list of available products from the grower and encourage them to list other items that could be interchanged with requested items
  • Discuss your commitment to meeting nutrition standards and incorporating Georgia Grown foods as you estimate the quantities and kinds of foods your school district needs
  • Decide your purchasing needs as outlined for the entire school year, during special promotions or projects, and for seasonal produce
  • Clearly define and communicate the evaluation criteria that will be used to select the successful grower/vendor
  • Negotiate billing procedures and the ability to meet delivery schedules
  • Determine the producer’s ability to provide products sourced from within the state geographic preference area.
  • If you are using a rotating menu, try using a different menu for each season

Be sure that nutrition directors clearly communicate with the farm partners/grower(s) on the following topics:

  • Procurement – Familiarize yourself with the local procurement procedures and best practices by reviewing the USDA’s Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs Guide.
  • Size – Indicate the size you expect for the products, because certain products must meet size requirements in order to qualify as part of a reimbursable meal. See USDA’s Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs Guide, Appendix G and discuss these requirements so that expectations are established beforehand.
  • Quantity – Farmers and SFAs sometimes speak different languages when it comes to discussing products. Schools may not be familiar with ordering apples by the “bushel” from their national distributor; be aware of language barriers and use terminology everyone understands. Consider the following when discussing quantities needed:
  • Quality – Clearly state the quality expected for each purchased product. For example, indicate that lettuce must be a healthy green color with no brown leaves.
  • Cleanliness – Indicate how clean you expect to receive the product. For example, the lettuce should be clean with no visible signs of dirt or insects.
  • Packaging – Make sure you are clear on what sort of packaging you expect. Show potential growers around your kitchen so they can visualize how you receive the product from other vendors. A local farmer may sell product in 25-pound boxes, but the SFA may need lighter/smaller packaging in order for staff to carry.
  • Food Safety – Review the Food Safety section of this toolkit to help clearly communicate best practices to the interested grower and determine the food safety needs of your program. Also see the Georgia Food Safety Checklist to help guide you through several areas of communication in terms of farmer practices.
  • Delivery – Establish a delivery timeline for products, including how, when and where they will be delivered to the school(s).

Farmer tips on how to best work with SFAs:

  • Plan ahead and make appointments – Identify schools you are interested in selling to and set up appointments to meet with their food buyer(s). This will likely be the district-wide School Food Service Director and may also include School Cafeteria Manager(s). If the school food service program is run by a food service management company, you will want to contact their buyer.
  • Choose the right products – Pick the products for which you have a steady and reliable source. While establishing yourself as a dependable vendor, offer products and volumes to which you are realistically able to commit. With limited budgets and the number of meals schools are serving each day, they may not be as flexible as other retailers. Be up front and realistic about pricing.
  • Consider expanding or changing your products – Could it help if you develop your products specifically to meet school and institutional needs? If so, this could include growing more of a certain crop or experimenting with new crop varieties. Remember that schools and institutions use a significant amount of fresh, minimally processed fruits and vegetables that are ready to use, such as broccoli florets, cauliflower crowns, cubed winter squash, etc. These kinds of “value-added” products may have a higher price point (benefit to you) with a reduced preparation time for food service staff (benefit to them).
  • Provide samples – Bring samples of what you can offer the school. This could mean providing enough of a sample that the school could use to introduce the product(s) by offering taste tests to students. (Tip: See taste test ideas in the Marketing and Promotion section of this toolkit.)
  • Invite the school to visit your farm – This will help the buyer(s) and food service staff get a sense of your farm, what your practices are, and what you’re growing. This also provides an opportunity for you and the school to work together to develop an ordering and delivery plan that meets each of your needs.
  • Educational opportunities – Commit to host a farm visit by a school district nutrition service representative to review farm practices. Consider getting involved in a district’s farm to school program and make yourself available for educational opportunities with faculty, staff, students and the community. By building these relationships, you build your farm’s brand name and create a better foundation for your partnership.
  • Be flexible – Working with School Food Authorities can look different from the traditional business for which you are accustomed.  Be prepared for them to ask lots of questions and be ready to make changes to your “usual way of doing things” in order to maximize the opportunity this farm to school partnership can provide.

Wisdom from Others:

Procurement in the 21st Century – This new resource from the National Food Service Management Institute is a comprehensive guidance document on national procurement regulations, covering everything from small purchases to competitive proposals, cooperative purchasing options and group buying services, plus product specifications, cost management and more.

“Tips” Adapted From:

Washington Department of Agriculture. “WSDA Farm to School Toolkit.” Retrieved Jan. 2013 from http://www.wafarmtoschool.org.