Distribution Strategies for Developing Farm-to-School Connections

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2006: $9,784.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Mike Hamm
Community, Agriculture, Recreation & Resource Stud

Annual Reports


  • Fruits: apples
  • Vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower


  • Farm Business Management: marketing management, new enterprise development


    A qualitative study was conducted with farmers, food service professionals, and food distributors participating in one of seven farm to school (FTS) programs in Michigan and New York. Differences in opportunities and trade-offs among stakeholders participating in different distribution models of local school food procurement were not observed. Stakeholders across farm scale, school district size, and distribution models reported similar experiences with respect to the program’s economic (e.g. future market) and non-economic (e.g. support local community) opportunities. Structural constraints to local school food procurement included oppositional school year and agriculture production cycle, tight school food service budgets, and procurement regulations.


    Background: In a 2004 survey conducted by the Mott Group and the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), food service directors expressed interest in purchasing locally grown foods for their school meals program (Izumi, Rostant, Moss, & Hamm, 2006). More than 73 percent of respondents reported being interested or very interested in connecting their schools with local farms and more than 85 percent expressed interest in purchasing locally grown food through their commercial distributor. However, food service directors also expressed a number of concerns about implementing FTS programs including cost, distribution, delivery and procurement regulations.

    In a follow-up pilot study, distribution emerged as one of the key barriers. For example, many food service directors prefer food deliveries be made to individual school buildings in small quantities rather than receiving one large shipment to the central school district store room. Yet this may not be cost-effective for farmers. The distribution barrier may present an opportunity for food distributors (including shippers and produce wholesalers). It is not clear whether or how such intermediaries impact the cost of locally grown food to the food service director or the profitability to the farmer. Furthermore, the impact of intermediate distribution structures on the proffered social benefits of food-to-school (FTS) programs is unknown.

    To our knowledge, there have been no studies to date that evaluate different supply chain models for distributing locally grown foods into schools. As more schools try to source locally grown food for their school meals programs, food distributors will play an important role. However, as food distributors become more involved in FTS programs, it is imperative that we learn more about their potential role. The purpose of this project was to better understand the economic and non-economic factors that motivate FTS program stakeholders to participate in efforts to integrate locally grown foods into school meals programs and the structural constraints that limit the market potential of such efforts.

    Literature Review: Anecdotal reports and our research have identified distribution as a key barrier for making FTS program connections. Many school districts are simply not able to work with individual farmers. According to one financial evaluation, such programs have not yet made a significant difference to the bottom-line for small local farmers (Brillinger, Ohmart, & Feenstra, 2003). While farm direct relationships may be appropriate for some farmers and food service directors, recently funded SARE projects have clearly identified a need for an intermediate distribution system to facilitate institutional purchasing of locally grown foods (Wheeler, 1997).

    There is indication that food distributors could increase procurement of locally grown foods in schools. The New Hampshire Farm to School Program has achieved success in distributing locally grown apples and cider to schools (Kelly, 2004). The program attributes its success, in part, to the ability of schools to work through their commercial distributor. Similarly, the Hartford Food System Farm to School Food Education Project increased the integration of locally grown foods into seven school cafeterias by working with a produce broker (Wheeler, 1997). The proposed research project complements and extends our current understanding of intermediate distribution structures by assessing the impact of these structures on farmer profitability, educational objectives and other ancillary benefits of FTS programs.

    Project objectives:

    Objective 1
    To use qualitative research methods to analyze different supply chain models for distributing locally grown foods in K-12 public schools in Michigan and in New York.

    Objective 2
    To use qualitative research methods to better understand the conditions around which FTS program connections will be profitable for farmers and beneficial for school food service directors.

    Objective 3
    To develop outreach materials based on research findings to assist farmers, school food service directors and other stakeholders in making long-term FTS program connections.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.