Sarasota County Florida has a thriving Farm to School program. In the 2014-2015 school year each month during the growing season, 30-67% of all produce served came from Florida farms. Dedicated staff members from the Sarasota County School District Food and Nutrition Services shared the following strategies that led to their successful Farm to School procurement.
When procuring new products, school districts must select vendors based on a bid system. In this case, Sarasota County Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) advertised a bid solicitation targeting local produce vendors. Sarasota County FNS began utilizing a Farm Fresh Produce bid in addition to the regular produce bid. The Farm Fresh bid included a preference for produce grown locally, a requirement for the contractor to provide a list of current farms and their locations on a weekly basis, and a requirement of delivery with 48 hours of harvest.
Local Products Data Collection
To establish a baseline of local foods and a process to track local products in the future, Sarasota County FNS began expansion of Farm to School procurement by taking an assessment of foods already procured locally. The assessment showed that the department needed a better way of tracking the sources of produce. Through the Farm to School Steering Committee meetings, the department improved communication with their distributor and requested weekly records of the produce sources. Most of the eggs and milk were already coming from Florida farms, which is common nationwide due to the high perishability of these foods. The Farm to School Liaison on staff was responsible for keeping up with this tracking.
A Dedicated Staff Member
Sarasota was able to expand their Farm to School program in 2014 through a USDA Farm to School Implementation Grant award. With this grant they hired a staff member who was able to organize the Farm to School Steering Committee meetings, conduct background research regarding the tracking of local purchases, work with the produce distributor to assist in setting up local food tracking procedures, and build relationships with producers to supply school meals. Several other school districts have realized success with Farm to School procurement by hiring a staff member whose time is partially or completely dedicated to expanding local purchasing. At the end of the grant period Sarasota FNS decided that having a staff member dedicated to Farm to School was valuable enough to the district, that they found room in their budget to make it a permanent position.
A Strategic Budget
All areas of school food service must be well managed for Farm to School procurement to be successful. Sometimes local products can be more expensive. In order to have extra funds to put toward Farm to School, Sarasota County FNS had to be strategic about saving funds on other purchases and areas of the budget. For instance, utilizing USDA Foods saves money that can be put toward local produce.
In the 2014/2015 school year, Sarasota County Food and Nutrition Services procured 32% of their produce for the entire year from Florida. This is a rise from 18% procured locally the previous year. Sarasota County continues to run a thriving Farm to School procurement program, and serves as an excellent example to the rest of the country on how to increase local procurement.
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Malory Foster, MS, RDN, LDN, Family Nutrition Program, UF/IFAS Extension