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School Rules: Farmers Face the Supply Side Issues

Farm-to-school programs are intended to feed kids with locally grown food, preserve farmland and educate children about nutrition and agriculture. But where do farms fit into the equation? Having local farms sell to local schools seems easy. But, farmers must focus on the potential trouble spots, such as low prices, small orders and costly delivery.

Selling produce to schools may be the right thing to do, but is it profitable? School lunches generally cost students between $1.50 to $2.00 per meal. The $2 or less from the sale has to cover the cost of the food and the labor and expenses associated with running the kitchen and cafeteria. Even farmers, renowned for their thrift, would be hard-pressed to make a venture like that succeed.

Once they are on board, schools order regularly from their farm suppliers. Full Belly Farm was glad to do business with school systems. However, there were drawbacks. “The biggest problem is that the orders are too small,” says Redmond. “Most farms have a volume requirement in order to make a drop. We have to charge more to make a small delivery.”

“We deliver,” says Charles Swanson of Mountain View Orchard in Corvallis, Montana, who sells apples directly to the Missoula County public school system, the University of Montana and the prison system. Swanson charges for delivery because of the distances he travels. “Years ago we used to sell to a wholesaler who then sold to the schools,” he says. “We said, ‘Why not go direct?’ It saves the schools money and they get a fresher product because they have a direct line to the grower.”

Getting produce directly from the farm is not something most food service departments are used to. Many school cafeterias are ill prepared to work with food fresh from the field. “It’s a lot more work for them to clean, process and cook all that produce,” says Redmond. “Farmers and food service people need to cooperate to overcome these challenges.”

In many cases, it’s unrealistic to expect food service personnel to put together fresh meals with the money currently available. More funding would allow buyers to spend more on fruits and vegetables, which could be purchased from local farmers. More resources also are needed for training and compensation of food service personnel. It will take time for things to fall into place, but the goal of feeding children fresh, locally grown food and educating them couldn’t be more worthwhile.

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American Farmland Trust