A frozen potato wedge product made from potatoes grown by local farmers was developed and produced by Jubilee Project in the Clinch Powell Community Kitchens as a healthy, oven-baked replacement for frozen French fries made from non-local potatoes and bought from a commercial distributor . Schools purchased the partly cooked, spiced frozen potato wedge product in 5-lb bags. Large-scale purchasing by local schools was delayed because of slow adoption of new procurement patterns enabled by federal and state legislation passed in 2008 which encourages local procurement and increased flexibility in bidding to enable small farms to bid on school food needs.
1. At least 7 local farmers will increase income to their farm microenterprise in the first year of the project, and at least 15 farmers by the second year of the project, by producing potatoes for sale to local schools.
2. At least 4 FTE jobs will be created in the local community by the end of the first year of the project, and at leastt 12 FTE jobs by the end of the second year of the project.
The project began with market research and product development in several states.
1. The market for potato wedges in public schools was assessed mainly via discussion with key informant: the School Nutrition Director for the Hawkins County (Tennessee) schools who had been the first school buyer interested in purchasing produce from local farmers. When she indicated interest, then
2. The project developed several versions of potato wedges in small batches varying by 4 different spice mixes, and by varied degree of cooking: raw, patrial and fully cooked.
3. These different versions of the product were tested with the School Nutrition Director, and her school staff and students at several Hawkins County schools. The products were evaluated for both taste and for ease of cooking, and it was determined that partly cooked potato wedges with lemon pepper seasoning got the highest rating.
4. The project delivered frozen 5-lb bags of this variety of potato wedge to Hawkins County Schools.
5. In response to problems encountered (see below) the project developed, tested and delivered a diced frozen potato cube product as well.
The problems with distribution in the rural school districts willing to purchase the potato products, and delay in orders for potato wedges and diced potato cubes, due to the slow reduction of policy barriers in school procurement in other school districts, meant that only two farmers increased income and that only 1 FTE job was created during the project period. However, the farmers group which helped with the marketing and distribution of the potato wedge product along with other produce, continued to grow. Clinch Appalachian Farm Enterprises, which continues to recruit local growers and now has 27 grower members from 22 farms, is coordinating the sale of member produce for public schools and increasing the number of area restaurants. They continue to develop new markets which have invited them to supply food, including a natural foods market and the University of Tennessee, both in Knoxville, Tennessee. And they continue to explore new produce and food products to sell to these markets, and would be willing again to market the potato wedges and diced potato cubes once the slowly changing procurement practices of public schools enable greater sales to schools.
Project participants continue to believe that the eventual adoption of these value-added farm products by schools and other markets will allow farmers to manage risk by diversifying their markets to include institutional markets they are producing. It will also reduce risk by diversifying their markets to include institutional markets like schools and hospitals which are relatively recession-resistant, and will enable them to invest their money and time in a product that is frozen and therefore has greater shelf life than fresh produce which must be harvested and delivered in a short period of time before it spoils. In addition, these value-added farm products will benefit community members by replacing one of the unhealthiest foods served to their children in local public schools – deep fried potatoes – with a much healthier baked potato wedge or diced potato cube alternative. Schools benefit both by having a healthy food that is more storable than the fresh product that makes up most of the rest of their healthy food buys. Schools, parents and all local consumers benefit by the increased amount of money going to farmers in their own communities that previously ended up leaving the local community.
Educational & Outreach Activities
While no publications emerged from the project, a number of outreach educational events were carried out. Project staff, including Steve Hodges, and Lisa Long of Jubilee Project’s Farm to School Program and Clinch Appalachian Farm Enterprises, presented information on the availability of the potato wedges to conference participants at the 2008 Annual Conference of Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, the 2008 Annual Conference of the Tennessee Organic Growers Association, the 2008 Annual meeting of the Southeast Region of the National Farm to School Network, and to the fall 2008 quarterly meeting of the Knoxville District Dietetic Association. Steve Hodges was a panelist in a workshop on farm-to-school procurement at the Tennessee School Nutrition Association Annual Conference in mid-June, 2009.
Public schools purchased small quantities of the semi-cooked, spiced frozen potato wedge and diced potato “cube” product in 5-lb bags. A version of the potatoes requiring less processing, and therefore costing less, was developed in anticipation of larger-scale purchasing by more local shcool districts.
During the process of carrying out the project, two problems arose:
1. Distribution: After trying potato wedges in a limited number of schools, the School Nutrition Director required that the project supply all 17 schools in the Hawkins County School System. Since most of these schools were in remote areas of a mountainous county, and the school was not able to provide a central receiving point, and she had only part-time use of a truck, she wanted the project or participating farmers to deliver the potatoes to the schools. However, it was not economically feasible to deliver potato wedges to all the schools on a regular basis, so the sales of potato wedges was restricted to occasional sales and special events. the attempt to expand the project to the nearby Kingsport City Schools, which did have central receiving, was not successful due to their slow adoption of increased local procurement even though it was allowed by federal and state legislations.
2. Production Cost: The schools set the minimum standard for potato wedges of 4″ long; this meant that a large percentage of potatoes grown were too short and that a portion of even those potatoes sufficiently long, were wasted. This led to the proposal to develop a diced potato cube product which, in addition to or instead of potato wedges, could use those portions of the potato which would otherwise be thrown away. Prototypes were produced, and production costs were significantly reduced by using more of the potatoes grown in the value-added product. The schools responded positively to this proposal, and to the prototype products developed but the problem of having to supply all the schools in Hawkins County remained, also, by then the project period was ending and there was not time to pursue the potential of this product further by taking prototypes to area restaurants and other markets.
In the spring of 2008, new language in the federal Farm Bill clarified that public schools were allowed to set a local preference for food procurement, and new state legislation which encouraged schools to purchase from local farmers was passed in the Tennessee General Assembly. Subsequently, suggested bid language for school districts to use with food suppliers was amended by the Tennessee Department of Education to enable schools to purchase from local farmers without violating their contracts. Though the new state legislation and contract language first took effect with contracts for the school year beginning August 2009, large-scale purchasing by local schools did not happen immediately as schools were slow to change long-standing procurement patterns.
Areas that need further research include how distribution of locally produced food, both primary and value-added food, can be cost-effective for supplying larger markets like schools. This should include consideration of options including central receiving schemes where schools distribute the food; the viability of having schools come to local farmers markets to purchase; or persuading commercial distributors to add these local produced foods to their established distribution routes. The latter may require either demonstrating increased demand for local product, or a supplier willing to take a risk that such demand will increase. Such research also ought to explore the role that organizing parents to urge schools to increase the pace of local procurement will have on opening up school markets to local farmers. Once such research is completed, the results need to be the topic of training for local farmers hoping to reach public institutional markets like local schools.
The farmers who participated in this project were assisted in developing break-even analyses for their potatoes that helped them figure, some for the first time, both fixed and variable expenses for both primary production of potatoes and for the value-added production into frozen potato wedges and frozen potato cubes. It is hoped though not known that they continue to use break-even analyses in their farm planning. We would highly recommend at least this simple business tool as well as doing some simple market demand research before producing food for schools. The other recommendation we would have is to consider the important role of organizing parents of students to urge swifter increases n local procurement, now that federal and Tennessee law permit and encourage that.