Many early care and education (ECE) sites struggle with local procurement. One of the reasons local procurement can be difficult is due to the often small volume needs, which can be lower than the smallest unit a farmer is willing to sell. Sites also can lack the equipment and staff time to plan menus, cook from scratch, and make multiple grocery trips per week. One approach to overcoming these barriers is through cooperative purchasing. Cooperative purchasing means sharing a purchase order, either with another early learning site, with families, or with a school district. 

Northeast Iowa Head Start Classrooms purchase cooperatively with their partner school districts, streamlining and simplifying local procurement. This approach makes for a consistently healthy environment for children from preschool through school age years, resulting in a higher probability of lasting healthy habits. In addition, by partnering with a school district, local procurement logistical and capacity issues that may make local procurement unrealistic otherwise are easily solved, freeing up ECEs to focus on other aspects of farm to ECE such as promoting the local foods offered and implementing farm to ECE activities in tandem with local foods. 

According to Haleisa Johnson, Early Childhood Program Coordinator for Northeast Iowa’s Food & Fitness Program (NIFFP), these partnerships are in effect in seven counties. NIFFP’s farm to school work began in 2007 through a WK Kellogg Foundation grant, with farm to ECE following close behind in 2012. “In 2004, we were seeing young children in our clinics with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, so we decided to see how many children in the schools had these diseases. Of those with parent permission for tests, 14% of the children in our schools were prediabetic or had type 2 diabetes.” According to Haleisa, before their farm to school and ECE work, many schools and Head Start sites primarily used heat and go meals instead of cooking on-site. Now, Head Starts who have decided to contract with their local school districts receive prepared meals in compliance with CACFP, along with the recipes, serving sizes, and component contributions for mixed dishes. These Head Starts saw the benefits of farm to school as soon as their partner schools began procuring locally and delivering fresh, wholesome meals.

School districts in Iowa have simplified their local procurement by purchasing from food hubs. “Over half of the farm to school purchases in Iowa come from food hubs”, explained Teresa Wiemerslage, field specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach and founder of the Iowa Food Hub. “Iowa’s food hubs work with hundreds of farmers to get products to institutions each week.” Food hubs are especially important to Iowa’s farm to institution work, as most of the farmers markets in Northeast Iowa are very small with few produce vendors. Chad Elliot, Culinary Specialist and Nutrition Director for Decorah Community School District, explained how the Food Hub has been integral to their local food purchasing. “The Iowa Food Hub makes it easy for us to get the quality and quantity of food we need at a price we can afford.” 

Contracting with schools makes it relatively effortless to get local foods on plates, but it’s not without its own challenges. “Since the Head Starts contract with the school for meals, I am not sure that they always realize when local food is featured in meals. The food service directors do a good job of working in produce from school gardens and ordering through the food hub, but you can’t always identify the local food by looking at the menu”, Teresa explained. Haleisa has employed strategies to get providers invested in farm to ECE and highlight the local food served. Using grant funds, Haleisa has provided all Head Start classrooms with a monthly teacher box containing local foods from the Iowa Food Hub to go along with a farm to ECE curriculum. “The boxes get dropped off at the dietary department, so these boxes really open the door for dietary to appreciate the local foods being used in classrooms and served in meals.” Other Head Starts purchase from the food hub independently using mini-grant funds. However, as Teresa explained, without the School District partnerships, the childcare customers are very small accounts and the food hub is set up for large wholesale purchases, making it difficult to justify serving childcare accounts. The food hub’s transition to online market operations and included delivery has been a solution to this challenge and a great way to serve smaller accounts like childcare centers. According to Haleisa, the childcare centers that have promoted and supplemented their local foods through activities and Harvest of the Month have reaped the rewards of their efforts. “It makes a huge difference in the classroom’s easy to see that the kids that eat better are better behaved.” Trusting relationships with both the school food service staff and the ECE staff is the key to cooperative purchasing, according to Haleisa. “Coach them of the benefits, the logistics and the sources for purchasing local food. Most of all be patient and supportive, it takes time to work cooperatively,” she advised.