-The New North Florida Cooperative Farm to School Program
A group of innovative African-American farmers formed the New North Florida Cooperative Association Inc. in 1995. The goal of the cooperative was to provide marketing services to the participating farmers, collectively sell produce to markets such as local school districts, and ultimately to increase the amount of product being sold, thereby increasing the farmers? income.
In order to help secure their first customer, the Cooperative donated 3,000 pounds of washed, chopped and bagged leafy greens to Gadsden County schools as a free sample. The gesture helped to solidify the business relationship and in the 1996-1997 school year, the Cooperative began selling farm fresh produce to thirteen schools in Gadsden County, Florida. After six years, sales had greatly expanded to a total of fifteen school districts in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. As many as 300,000 students were served during the 2003-2004 school year. Within Florida, thirteen counties/school districts (Gadsden, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Jackson, Leon, Sarasota, Manatee, Walton, Pinellas, Palm Beach, Broward, Hamilton and Bay) received farm fresh produce, either as a pilot project or during the school year.
The Cooperative focuses on three or four main items and sells to schools year-round. The items are incorporated into menu planning, as a side dish or with fresh fruit as dessert. Products sold to schools have included collard greens, sweet potatoes, green beans, field peas, muscadine grapes, turnip greens, strawberries, blackberries, and watermelon. Equipment purchases automated the job of cleaning, and processing, packaging and storing fresh products enabled the Cooperative to provide value-added products.
The New North Florida Cooperative Association Inc. handles most of the deliveries to the school districts, although they do work with produce vendors as well. The produce is labeled with a logo and nutritional analysis. Deliveries are made two to three days per week, depending upon school menus. All cooperative members go out of their way to be helpful and courteous when delivering the produce; they unload the boxes and stack them neatly in district or school storage facilities.
Word has spread of the Cooperative's high quality produce, prompt deliveries, fair prices, and courteous professionalism, which Cooperative members refer to as ?relationship marketing.? Positive word-of-mouth publicity, including enthusiasm among school children, has lead to a high demand for their products among school districts. The New North Florida Cooperative Association Inc. has adapted to meet the needs of a growing number of farmers and schools. Although this association began as cooperation and is still referred to as such because of name recognition, since 2002 it has essentially functioned as a coalition serving networking functions. As such, the NNFC facilitates connections between farmers and schools.
The Cooperative initially received financial assistance, mainly for the purchase of infrastructure and equipment, along with a $40,000 grant from the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service. The Cooperative also received a USDA grant in 1999 to purchase additional infrastructure to expand processing and distribution. Although grant monies were used in the initial stage of this program, approximately ninety percent of the funding for the Cooperative's marketing efforts comes from direct marketing sales, which contributes to the sustainability of the farm to school program. The Cooperative has developed a niche market and consequently is able to negotiate a price that is fair to the school district and profitable for the growers.
As part of its marketing and promotion, the Cooperative has developed posters showing the life cycle of a crop from production to consumption. These posters are displayed in school cafeterias, and serve not only as an effective promotion for the Cooperative, but also to promote awareness of agriculture and small farms among school children. Although an educational component of this program does exist, the main success of this program lies in its creation of a sustainable business relationship between farmers and school districts.
215 Perry-Paige Bldg., Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University
Tallahassee, FL 32307
Phone: (850) 599-3546