Before we move too far forward in the procurement process, we need to know what it is that you will be purchasing. As it goes when making any changes in your school meal program, incorporating local products into your menu requires planning. Menu planning is already tricky in that it needs to meet meal pattern and nutrition requirements while being appealing to students and within budget. Identifying where local foods fit into the process may at first seem to be an additional hurdle. In this installment of the Going Local series, we are going to take away the guesswork and share some simple ways of beginning to incorporate local foods into your program.
To get started, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Simply identifying foods already offered on your menu and replacing them with local ingredients is a great first step in going local. In many regions of the country, school is not in session during peak harvest time. In some areas there are items that are available year round. As mentioned in previous articles, menu planning should start with a comprehensive audit analyzing current and historical data to project future trends. By comparing the state of your current menu with availability of foods in your specific market, you can easily identify which foods can be replaced with local items.
Menu cycles of 2-6 weeks throughout the school year are common methods used by school food operators. The benefits of cycles include cost, quantity and recipe consistency. Using your current process, you can easily incorporate year-round or seasonally available local foods. However, in seasonal situations these cycles typically change every 3-4 months. For those just beginning to plan a menu cycle, state agencies can be great resources for those who operate meal programs in states that have developed cycle menus. These menus meet the new meal pattern regulations and also include local foods.
As with just about anything in life, money plays a major role in planning and forecasting during the procurement process. Also important in the process of purchasing regionally produced items is the menu analysis of average daily participation and take rate. Depending on the nature of your relationship with local farmers, providing an accurate forecast can assist producers in determining what and how much they need to grow. Forecasting also helps identify how many students are being feeds, the quantity of food to be ordered, how much can be spent on food and what schools are able to budget for the purchase of local products. An easy starting point is using previous production or average daily participation records to determine average food costs.