While the phrase “buying local” might create images of a farmer delivering produce straight to your back door, local foods do not always travel straight from the field, pasture, or water source to the plate. Some schools buy directly from producers. Other schools rely on third parties, such as distributors, to source, process, and deliver local foods. Indeed, local foods can be purchased directly from producers, through producer co-ops and food hubs, through distributors, from food processors, and even from school gardens. For small groups or taste tests, sourcing can also be from the grocery store or supermarket.
The important thing to remember is that no one method is exclusive of another, which means a school can purchase local products from its distributor while also buying local products directly from a producer.
Purchasing directly from local farmers creates a connection with the person growing the food. Direct relationships allow for greater knowledge about production practices, access to the freshest products, and access to on-farm or in-classroom educational opportunities. Talk with other school districts or reach out to us to learn about best practices for sourcing specific products you are looking for.
Benefits of Buying Local
You have the option to purchase local, but what are the benefits? What advantage does buying local provide?
- Locally grown food is full of flavor. When grown locally, the crops are picked at their peak of ripeness versus being harvested early in order to be shipped and distributed over long distances. Many times, produce purchased from a local farmer has been picked within 24-48 hours of delivery.
- Eating local food means eating seasonally. The best time to eat fresh produce is when it can be purchased from a local grower. Produce will be full of flavor and taste better than the produce available off-season, which has traveled many miles and was picked before it was ripe.
- Local food has more nutrients. Local food has a shorter time between harvest to plate, and it is less likely that the nutrient value has decreased. Vegetables can lose half of their nutritional value when imported from far-away states and can be more than a week old before they are delivered.
- Local food supports the local economy. Money spent with local farmers and growers stays close to home and is reinvested in businesses and services in your community.
- Local food benefits the environment. By purchasing locally grown foods you help maintain farmland, green space, and open space in your community.
- Local growers can tell you how the food was grown. You can ask the grower what practices they use to raise and harvest their crops. When you know where your food comes from and who grew it, you know a lot more about that food.
What is Local?
Serving local foods through school meal programs is a central component of farm to school initiatives. Before schools and districts start purchasing local foods, they should determine which local foods they are already purchasing, as well as assess what foods are grown, harvested, raised, caught, and processed in the region and when those foods are available. Knowing these things about the surrounding agricultural landscape can help schools and districts take the critical step of defining “local.”
The school food authority (SFA) can define “local” or “regional” however they prefer: within a certain number of miles from the school, within the state, or within a multi-state region. They might also choose to define the terms differently for different types of products. Involving food service staff, local growers, food distributors, and others in helping you define “local” will ensure that the definition suits your needs.
For example, a school could decide that because there are so many fruit and vegetable producers within their parish, “local” fruits and vegetables must come from within parish lines. However, if the parish has only one farm, then “local” produce might come from anywhere in the state.
Page County Public Schools, in Virginia, defines “local” using three tiers:
- Within the County
- Within the Region (within 90 miles of Luray, VA)
- Within the State
While a product that meets the first-tier definition is preferred, a product that falls within any of the three tiers would be considered a local product.
- Oakland Unified School District, in California, defines “local” within a 250-mile radius of Oakland.
- Hinton Public Schools, in Oklahoma, defines “local” as within Oklahoma.
Sources of Local Foods
Connect with local farmers, ranchers, and food businesses to find out what types of foods are produced within the area(s) you’ve defined as “local” or “regional.” There are several strategies to get you started.
- What’s in Season? Louisiana-Grown Produce Seasonality Chart lists the foods are available each month.
- Go to your local Farmers Market or contact your local market manager. Start talking with area farmers and food business staff. Find out who is interested in working with your school or district to provide food. A list of markets and local producers can be found on the Louisiana Grown website by clicking on “Where to Buy” and then clicking either “Fruit & Veggie Producers” or “Farmers’ Market” for point of sale.
- Check with your distributor(s) for a list of local products that they stock on a regular basis or a list of farms they purchase from on a regular basis. The more your distributor is aware of your intentions, the more helpful they can become, creating a relationship that goes both ways.
- Use local food and product directories:
- Search Louisiana MarketMaker’s online directory to find specific products or producers in your area or anywhere in the state. MarketMaker is the largest and most in-depth database of its kind, featuring a diverse community of food-related businesses: buyers, farmers, ranchers, fisheries, farmers markets, processors/packers, restaurants, and more. It provides simple yet powerful search tools to connect with others across the production and distribution chain.
- Use the Louisiana Farm to School Local Food Sources Contact List to find producers who are interested in working with school groups.
- Find fresh seafood near you on the Louisiana Direct Seafood website.
- Call your local agricultural extension office and connect with the agents to identify producers nearby. Find your LSU AgCenter parish extension office here.
Existing Suppliers, Contracts, and Procurement Systems
Many schools experience success working with their existing suppliers and procurement framework to procure local foods. Before deciding to develop new relationships, contracts, and systems, take stock of the opportunities available through your current procurement system.
How do you currently procure foods, both local and non-local? What food-related contracts do you currently hold? What local food items are currently available through your contracted suppliers? Do you use any guidelines or templates to create invitations for bids, requests for proposals, and informal procurement solicitations?
There are lots of places and means to purchase local foods, depending on the quantity you need and your funding source. Here are a few:
- Produce distributor
- Broadline supplier (large supplier such as Sysco)
- DoD Fresh Program
- Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP)
- Grocery store or supermarket
- Farmers’ cooperative
- Food hub
- Directly from individual farmers
Perhaps your produce distributor would be happy to offer more local foods if they just knew who to buy them from, or perhaps there’s a farmers’ cooperative nearby that’s been interested in pooling their products for institutional purchasers. You won’t know until you start looking.
If you don’t know where to begin, contact us! We are here to assist in this process. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.