- Fruits: apples, berries (other), berries (blueberries)
- Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, tomatoes
- Education and Training: demonstration
- Production Systems: organic agriculture
- Sustainable Communities: public policy
Small-scale, sustainable agricultural producers often struggle to maintain year-round income streams, and due to economies of scale can rarely compete in the same markets that larger-scale conventional producers occupy. In March 2008, the Washington State Senate passed the Local Farms – Healthy Kids bill (SSB 6483). The legislation, designed to make it easier for schools to buy locally grown food (thereby providing markets for local farmers as well as nutritious, fresh local food for school children), received essentially unanimous support in both the House and Senate.
The bill eases purchasing restrictions that make it difficult for schools to buy from local farms (and in fact allows schools to buy local even if the local produce is not the lowest bid), establishes a state “Farm to School” program that will connect schools with community farmers, and enacts a Washington Grown Fruits and Vegetables Program that not only funds a fresh fruit and veggie snack program in schools with high numbers of low income youth, but also preferences applicants to such programs who articulate how they will incorporate nutrition, agricultural stewardship education and environmental education into the snack program (RCW 28A.235.170).
All of this sounds like good news for farmers, but what does this opportunity really mean for the small-scale sustainable producer? Is it possible for local sustainable producers to provide healthy food to their local schools on a year-round basis? Must a farm be able to meet district-wide economies of scale in order to participate or might there be some opportunities for partnership on an individual farm to individual school basis? What level of product liability insurance must a farm have in order to participate? What can we learn about how exposure to local foods and sustainable production systems, via an educational and personal relationship with local farmers, affects social, economic and environmental systems regionally? Is there an agri-educational niche, as well as an agricultural production niche, that could be filled by farmers looking to expand their enterprise? What do we know about school purchasing practices and preferences that distinguishes them from the purchasing practices and preferences of the general public, and how will farmers need to shift our four-season production practices to best meet this specific market opportunity?
Questions abound– both practical and philosophical – about how small-scale sustainable producers might best take advantage of this opportunity.
Dialogue with food service managers and schools officials will help clarify how small-scale producers may best fulfill the cold-season production needs of schools by trialing different varieties of desired produce, utilizing portable greenhouses and cloches to determine best opportunities for success, including possible selection and breeding for cold season production. The ability for small-scale producers to leverage four season production in a way that is responsive to school produce needs opens new and profitable year-round markets.
By surveying local food service workers and district officials to identify what vegetables are most desired from local growers, the volume needed and specific delivery needs, farmers will become better able to understand the unique challenges and opportunities involved in meeting school district produce needs. By identifying the intersection of what schools want and what farmers can profitably grow, with a focus on the climate of Northwest Washington and the needs of local schools, we will provide a road map both for ourselves and for other local and regional small-scale producers to open up this profitable market opportunity.
Project objectives from proposal:
The original goals of the project were to determine what role, if any, small-scale producers might play in providing produce to schools, particularly in light of Washington State's "Local Farms Healthy Kids" initiative. Further goals, as originally stated, were to trial various vegetables with an eye to school year production and to provide other small-scale producers with a variety of information, including field trial outcomes and also tools for approaching and working with Food Service staff that might help them to most readily access the potential school food service market.
The reality is that the project almost immediately came up against what I would describe as a "lack of readiness" on the part of the food service staff to accommodate any kind of local produce, let alone local produce from small farms. Consequently, the bulk of the project ended up involving extensive (and on-going) dialogue with food service staff about the challenges and opportunities of sourcing local foods.