Farm-to-School Network Plays Matchmaker for Local Foods

National Network Organized into 8 Regions

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Posted: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 3:34 pm

All across America, the left hand is growing crops, raising livestock, and distributing the finished product to consumers. Also all across America, the right hand is purchasing large quantities of food to serve in schools, hospitals, and other institutional markets. Because the two hands don't often work together, the process of food production, distribution and consumption may be more complicated and costly than it needs to be.

Bringing the two entities together is the Farm to School Network. Its mission, in part, is to connect K-12 schools and local farms "with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers." This network allows farmers to know where they might find nearby customers for their product, and for those looking for locally produced goods to find a grower.

The national network covers all 50 states, organized into eight regions. According to Julia Govis, Illinois Farm to School State Lead, the networking process is a bit like matchmaking. They use a database, populated with information supplied by the parties, to try to fix up Farmer A with School B, for instance. She jokes that it is like a dating network, in which the parties have to take responsibility if they don't get along.

But the odds of the food relationship being good are high, Govis added. That's because extensive support is in place in ways not previously available. For example, individuals in Illinois have been working since 2009 in an ad hoc way with people from business and the non-profit sector, Govis said, using only the Illinois Farm, Food and Jobs Act as their guide. While that Act is a mandate, not a law, its statement that "Illinois should be the Midwest leader in local and organic food and fiber production" certainly encouraged local food groups. There was no funding for their efforts, but still they worked with graduate students including those from the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois to create videos and "tool kits" for farmers and for parents of school kids.

Just about a month ago, however, the national Food to School program hired Govis in her position at the statewide level. A "4-H kid and 4-H mom," she now works out of the University of Illinois extension office. One of her missions is to target the Act's goal that 10 percent of food served in schools be from Illinois farms, by 2020. By that same year, 20 percent of food for other institutional markets should be from local sources, the Act says.

There are all kinds of good reasons to meet these goals, Govis said. For example, most food consumed in Illinois travels about 1,500 miles to reach the table. Meanwhile, much of that fertile Illinois farmland is being used to produce crops like corn and soybeans, which are grown for animal, rather than human consumption. The demand for locally grown and organic foods is expanding, as a visit to any local farmers market suggests. "Matching consumers with locally grown food helps fuel the local economic engine, is a job creation tool, encourages consumers to purchase local foods and to hire folks to keep things going," she said.

With all these reasons to shrink the antipodes of food production and consumption, Govis said she can't think of any downsides. However, that does not mean there are no obstacles. First, she said, "we need to educate people about what we grow." Many people wonder why schools can't simply switch to serving fresh local foods immediately. But instead of "getting mad at the lunch lady," Govis said people need to realize that "we have to participate as consumers to encourage markets to change."

The challenges aren't all at the consumer end of the process, Govis said. Ninety-eight percent of Illinois corn and soybeans are shipped out of state. "It is bringing in high dollar now. Farmers are in business. They ask themselves-why change?' Even if they think it is a great idea to switch acreage over to products for local human consumption, it needs to make business sense. Right now we are missing the infrastructure for distribution." In other words, small growers are more nimble about what crops they plant and what methods they use to harvest and distribute, but the bigger growers have a harder time with the transition.

Another barrier, according to Govis, is at the food preparation end of the line. "Most school kitchens don't even have pots and pans anymore; they just heat and serve, and the staff isn't trained to prepare fresh foods. That's why it is so important to have collaboration to facilitate this transition."

In a state of almost 13 million people, opportunities for collaboration abound. But in another state at the early stages of its own Farm to School Network, just having a neighbor to speak with is a challenge. With only around 550,000 residents, Wyoming farmers don't have many neighbors, let alone colleagues. That's why it is not an understatement for local food advocate Cindy Garretson-Weibel to say, "It is really exciting for Wyoming food to wind up in local food systems, schools and restaurants."

Garretson-Weibel is the director of the Wyoming Business Council's Agricultural division. Wyoming has been involved for two years at the national Food to School Network, she said. The state is following the same path that Illinois did - working to identify interested collaborations by which what is grown locally can stay local.

The state is developing a database of producers who are interested in participating. They are in the midst of sending surveys to all Wyoming agriculture producers to gauge their interest in farms connecting to local schools, restaurants and institutions, or doing direct marketing to a local community. They are compiling results of the survey to identify interested producers. As soon as possible, that information will appear on a website people can access. Eventually they plan to send schools a list so they can connect with producers, and producers a list of schools. After that, they are on their own.

"It would be nice to be able to say that by a certain time we'll have X amount of producers of meat working with schools, but we're really just getting started. Short term, our goal is to increase awareness of the possibility of using Wyoming food in Wyoming schools. We'll establish benchmarks later."

One challenge for Wyoming is that the state's short growing season is not conducive to crop production for direct human consumption. Its top five agricultural products are beef cattle and calves, hay, sugar beets, hogs, sheep and lambs. Hay is the top crop in Wyoming, followed by sugar beets, barley, dry beans and wheat. Of those items, meat has the largest potential for being served in schools. In fact, custom-processed beef is showing up at some local schools, and Department of Defense funding has been used to bring locally grown potatoes to nearby schools. In addition, produce of the fresh crunchy kind is also available, Garretson-Weibel said.

Some producers are successful with growing methods such as high tunnels. Farmers markets have really taken off in communities like Sheridan, Laramie and Torrington, and others are getting ready to expand. Yet many school and local officials are skeptical that local produce for schools could be a reality. That skepticism underscores the need for awareness of "Ag in Wyoming," Garretson-Weibel said. "For example, people should understand and have closer connection about where their food comes from." She points to Robinson Family Farms, a producer from western Wyoming's Star Valley, as an example. "They don't just do carrots and veggies for the snack program; they visit kids in school and talk about the importance of agriculture."

Another barrier Weibel notes is one that can be addressed at the grassroots level. "The school kitchen staff is excited, but administrators who have to fill out paperwork and do contracts aren't as excited." She acknowledges buying locally might be more work for those making the buying decisions, "but there is a great benefit. Parents should encourage schools to take a look at it."

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