The USDA Farm to School Grant Program has helped fund more than 220 farm to school projects to a tune of $15+ million. Since being introduced more than three years ago, enthusiasm for sourcing local foods has grown nationwide. As someone who may be new to the program, you may be asking yourself, “How do I find local foods?” Fortunately, there are many ways to procure local items. This blog entry will help set your school nutrition sails in the right direction.
(Image: Courtesy of USDA)
What is local?
Local refers to the area in which many food items are found. Foods can include fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, flours, meat, poultry, fish, dairy and number processed products with these ingredients. What sets them apart from “normal” foods is that they come from local farmers, ranchers, dairies, fisherman, food processers and distributors.
Every school district has unique criteria on what can be defined as local. Detailing your district’s definition will enable you to better understand market availability and help prepare a backup plan for when market conditions may not be favorable. Oftentimes, schools adopt definitions based on State agency recommendations. However, you can certainly define local however you see fit. To keep things simple, many schools set boundaries within a certain number of miles, within county lines or within the state or region. Your definition of local may change as quickly as the seasons, and be sure to take into account any unforeseen changes in weather, natural disasters, or market conditions that may affect what local means to you.
What are you hoping to achieve by going local? Do you desire to support small producers? Prefer to cater to your region’s unique palette? Increase participation by offering fresher in-season products? Taking a look at the reasons why you are making a commitment to local foods will help you solidify your school nutrition program’s local purchasing plan. Establishment of these goals will help you identify who you purchase products from and if the schools funds are being put to good use. Once more, these goals may evolve over time, so approach your goal setting efforts with an open mind!
Before we set you on the path to snatching up your own local foods, we need to first identify what products are available locally and when they are in season. Every region of the country will vary significantly in terms of availability for different food items. These differences are neighboring agricultural areas and crops, growing season, demographics and market conditions. A few resources for spotting local foods in your unique marketplace are listed below:
- Cooperative Extension Agents – Visit your state-level website to retrieve contact information for agents in your state.
- Farm to School Census – Survey results from more than 18,000 school districts examining local procurement and purchasing sources.
- USDA Census of Agriculture – Searchable database based on surveys of nationwide farmers to give you detailed information on crop types and volume produced in your area.
- Seasonality Charts – Visual representations of what foods are available in a given state or region. Check with your specific state department of agriculture agency for more information.
Still think going local may be right for you? If so, take these points into consideration to define what you hope to achieve from this new procurement philosophy. We hope you have an exciting journey as you venture into, what might just be, undiscovered local territory.