Farm-to-School: The Next Big Thing?

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At the state meeting of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota last Saturday, farmer Greg Reynolds opened his presentation on selling food to the Hopkins School District with a simple assessment: “I think it’s the next big thing.” Listen to Reynolds’ presentation on LSP’s podcast (episode 76) and it will become clear why the farmer is so upbeat about this new marketing relationship.

It’s easy to see why the veteran organic vegetable farmer is so excited about his first foray into farm-to-school marketing last year. After all, he didn’t start delivering produce to the district’s cafeterias until after Labor Day, which is near the end of his growing season. But in a few short weeks the district’s schools became major wholesale customers for the farmer.

And it didn’t hurt that he got some very positive feedback on the quality of the food from food service managers and, most importantly, schoolkids. That’s why Reynolds already has plans to supply the school in 2010.

Reynolds’ thumbs-up assessment is particularly interesting given his background: he already has a well-established customer base via Twin Cities restaurants, food co-ops and CSA members. He doesn’t necessarily need to seek out yet another client. But after having such a positive experience, he thinks it’s worth the trouble.

And those reasons go beyond monetary. As the farmer explained Saturday, there is increasing evidence that feeding schoolkids good food improves their performance and behavior significantly. Now there’s a nice perk to supplying a certain niche market.

Every town of any size has a school, and every one of those schools serves food. Even though the school year and the Minnesota growing season don’t overlap much, there are still lots of opportunities for selling fresh, local food to cafeterias, especially in the fall. And as Reynolds pointed out, Hopkins officials found that even after the farmer stopped delivering late last fall, many of the kids kept eating fruits and vegetables. Their brief exposure to real food had gotten them hooked on healthier eating.

Go to the national Farm to School website and you’ll soon learn that experiences likes this are becoming increasingly less rare. From California to New York, schools and farmers are proving that cafeteria food can be fresh, local and healthy. Of course, there are some huge barriers to overcome before onion rings stop qualifying as a major vegetable serving in most school lunchrooms, but some exciting models are being created. We even have good examples right in our own backyard—Willmar’s farm-to-school effort has spawned more than healthier kids, it’s resulted in a nice toolkit resource for others wanting to pursue something like this.

Reynolds’ presentation Saturday was preceded by a summary of what JoAnne Berkenkamp has learned in her discussions with all the “lunch ladies” around the state that are dipping their toes into farm-to-school efforts. As you can hear on LSP podcast episode 75, she’s come up with a nice 10-point checklist that should prove useful to any farmer considering approaching a school district.

Both Reynolds and Berkenkamp emphasized the importance of creating a relationship with school officials, teachers and, most importantly, students. That relationship goes beyond just delivering a crate of carrots once a week.

Reynolds has already been meeting with the district’s food service staff this winter and he has plans to bring students out to the farm and to help one of the school’s start a garden. The farmer is even going to visit a classroom to talk about where those delicious carrots and potatoes come from.

As Greg put it: “It’s all about building that relationship between the people that are eating that food, and the people that are selling it.”

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