For the past five years, young farmer Mike Nolan of Mountain Roots Produce has been selling his vegetables to the biggest restaurant in Durango, Colo., and pleasing the smallest customers. While the term “restaurant” might be a stretch, Durango’s 9-R school district serves over 2,000 meals a day, and thanks to Nolan, students munch on locally grown potatoes, beets, carrots, rutabagas and winter squash. This farm to school program is a huge opportunity for a farmer like Nolan, who can sell between 500 and 2,000 pounds of potatoes, for example, in a single transaction with the school district. The school district is a stable, high-volume market for him, and it’s a rewarding place to sell his produce. Not only does Nolan feel he is contributing to food system change, but those same students eating his vegetables recognize him as an invaluable part of the Durango community.
Multiple benefits come out of farm to school programs: they put more fresh fruits and vegetables into school meals, teach children where food comes from, inspire students to eat healthier and support local farm economies. From the farmer perspective, institutional buyers, like schools, represent an important piece of the local food system. Institutions provide farmers access to larger, more stable markets that require less one-on-one consumer contact than CSAs and farmers’ markets.
Both schools and farmers benefit when schools procure local food, but a ready supply of farmers is needed to help the farm to school movement grow. And the capacity of local farmers to support farm to school programs remains a critical challenge. The ability of local farmers to meet farm to school demand extends beyond just seeds in the ground or tomatoes on the vine. Institutional markets, like schools, sometimes have additional requirements for farmers that farmers markets and other, smaller retail channels do not.
One of these potential additional requirements, called “Good Agricultural Practices” (GAP), ensures that food is grown in a way that minimizes food safety risks. While GAP is not limited to farm to institution procurement (USDA, as well as many wholesalers require GAP certification, too), it can be a factor for some farmers looking to scale up their farms and access institutional markets. Ensuring the safety of food served in our schools, hospitals, and other large institutions is of course important, however, these
additional requirements can create unforeseen hurdles for some farmers. The requirements vary from state to state, and sometimes from district to district. North Carolina, for example, requires GAP audits and certification for farms that supply its schools through their Farm to School Program. In Illinois, farmers who sell directly to schools are not requires to be GAP certified or audited. In other states, the decision about training and certification is made on a school or district level basis.
If GAP comes into play, farmers can face two different costs to certification. First are the costs of recordkeeping, verification and certification necessary to demonstrate compliance. These costs can include fees associated with the audit and certification process, time needed for required paperwork and training to understand the certification program requirements. The second set of costs may be practice changes and equipment upgrades required to comply with the certification. These costs can include changes in the way food is grown and the way farming is conducted to minimize food safety risks.
Assistance with these practice changes and certification costs provides a good opportunity to further farm to school programs and support small farmers. Farming has slim margins and uneven revenue, so some farmers can’t afford $1,000 for a GAP audit if it is required in order to access farm to school markets. To address the costs of certification, a cost-share program between the USDA and the farmer would go a long way toward bringing certification within reach for a small farmer.
Farm to school programs have shown their value, and supporting small farmers who are ready to scale up or diversify their market channels is a win for all. Targeted investment in cost-share and small grant programs would reduce the cost of entry into farm to school markets for some farmers. And by helping these farmers access institutional markets like schools, we can set them up for long-term success while supporting the growth of the local food movement and reaping educational and health benefits for children.
This blog post is excerpted from 16 for 2016: 16 Education Policy Ideas for the Next President, a report authored by Bellwether Education Partners with input from the National Young Farmers Coalition and others. The National Young Farmers Coalition is a national network of farmers, ranchers, and consumers who support practices and policies that will sustain young, independent, and prosperous farmers now and in the future.