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Farm to school in Arizona: A conversation with Linda Rider

NFSN Staff Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Our Arizona State Lead, Cindy Gentry, recently sent us this great Q&A between Libby Boudreau, a community dietitian at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, and Linda Rider, director of nutrition services for the Tempe Elementary School District in Arizona. Thanks to Libby for conducting the interview, to Cindy for sending it our way and to Linda for her great farm to school work! 

How long have you been doing farm to school?
I feel that I dabble in it. I first did farm to school about five years ago when we received a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, and the Arizona Department of Education gave us a big list of farmers.

What was the first item that you purchased locally?
Since 2009 we’ve purchased local apples every fall–I only want them when they’re being harvested. We expanded to include carrots from Rousseau Farms in 2011. I really want our local produce to come as much as possible from Maricopa County. Part of my initiative is to have a smaller carbon footprint and get food directly from the farms to the district. That means working with smaller farmers to support the local economy.

What other items have you been able to purchase from local farmers?
Last year I was able to bring in specialty lettuce from Duncan Family Farms through the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. It was a pilot project, and the farm was identified through Stern Produce [a local distributor]. It was only four days from harvest to door, and the lettuce was washed and chopped in between. We used it in entrée salads and side salads from November until mid-April.

What is your kitchen setup? Do you have a central processing kitchen or does each school receive and process its own deliveries?
We have a central facility and we send produce out to schools, but most of what we receive is already prepped. We don’t really have to chop and clean, but we could. As I start pulling in smaller farmers, they may not be able to get things processed. That system is still being implemented.

Did your costs increase when you implemented your farm to school program?
They stayed pretty balanced. The cost for carrots was break-even. Apples are a little more costly due to the distribution. I was getting them directly from a farmer at first, and at that time, the cost was equitable. That farmer can no longer deliver directly to the school, so they now come from a distributor called Patagonia Orchards. Because of that, the apples are a little more expensive, but they’re also organic.

What are the biggest challenges of your farm to school program?
Distribution and procurement. A distributor won’t pick up apples from a farm just for me; it doesn’t fit their model. It’s about finding out who can help with that distribution. You have to be creative to get it to come to you, unless it comes through the Department of Defense. Some of the larger distributors are highlighting local products now, and that can be a viable way to help access local farmers.

Another challenge is knowing who is out there, who the smaller farmers are. And then you have to think about food safety. Are they GHP/GAP certified, or have they had another type of third-party audit?

Finally, volume is a challenge. Our organic apples are not the only apples we serve because we don’t get enough to cover all of our needs. They’re mixed in with other apples.

What resources were useful to you as you developed your farm to school program?
There are some good procurement guides that have been very helpful. One, from USDA, is called Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs. Another one, by School Food FOCUS, is called Geographic Preference: A primer on purchasing fresh, local food for schools

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about farm to school programs?
That nobody wants local produce. I hear a lot of school nutrition directors talking about local, but when I call my distributor, they tell me I’m the only person asking for it. I don’t believe that. If you look at what your distributor offers and ask them about local products, there will be a shift. Schools have to tell their distributors that they are looking for local and what local means to them.

What benefits do you see from your farm to school program?
Bringing in local produce is a way to maintain nutrient density and freshness, and that’s why I like it really local – within the county. It’s just so fresh. It’s also exciting to market to the school community and help them be aware of our efforts. I know our families appreciate local, so I’m always finding ways to make them aware of what we do. It’s a customer service issue. And if we can get the teachers involved, then they get the kids excited. That’s the best way to get kids involved. Also, supporting the local economy is important. 

Tell us about your very favorite farm to school moment.
I love seeing all of the apple varieties. We’re getting Pink Lady apples in today, and they’re the perfect size for schools. We just had Fuji apples. They’re always juicy and fresh – just great apples. And they’re pretty! I think people think that if you buy organic or local, the produce is going to be ugly, but it’s not.


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