Local and Regional Procurement


In order to discuss local and regional procurement in the school setting we must step back and look at the history that has led us to applying geographic preference to our procurement solicitations on a somewhat routine basis. What is Farm to School (F2S)? We’re not sure anyone has claimed coining the phrase but it certainly represents more than just “buying local.” It’s a mindset and an approach to connect food education to the process of growing healthy kids. F2S activities encompass everything from planting a garden to visiting a farm to using locally grown ingredients in a menu and then telling the school community about it. It also includes teaching kids to cook with local foods and bringing farmers to the schools to teach kids about what it is that they do. From an economic perspective, the positive impact of school districts investing in their local economy is enormous. The USDA’s Farm to School Census has indicated that more than 350 million dollars are invested in local food purchases in a single year. That is just the beginning of what is possible.

The early F2S activities began in the late 1990s in a small number of schools. The concept grew as a grassroots movement that was supported by many organizations working on the reestablishment and growth of regional food systems. The activity did not go unnoticed at the federal level, and in 2004 the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act established a federal farm to school program that was not funded at that time. Many states also passed legislation that either established state-based F2S initiatives, funding, or regulations that encouraged procurement and education activities between farms and schools. To date, 46 states have proposed or enacted legislation regarding F2S programs.

In 2007, the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) was established through key funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as a collaborative of more than 30 organizations. The NFSN was initially led by the Community Food Security Coalition and the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. NFSN is now a project of the Tides Center. The NFSN established eight regional lead agencies, 51 state leads, and an advisory board in addition to their national staff. Through their extensive outreach, they have truly grown the movement across the country. Here is a timeline of events since its inception:

  • In 2008, Farm Bill geographic preference was established to support the opportunities for local procurement in school meal programs.
  • In 2009, the USDA established the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative which coordinates USDA staff across the nation to share resources and publicize USDA efforts related to local and regional food systems.
  • In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act provided $5 million per year in mandatory funding of the Farm to School Grant Program, a huge accomplishment supported by NFSN and many other supporters nationwide. The growth of F2S (aka Farm to Institution and Farm to Cafeteria) has been remarkable. The impact of HHFKA has created a special focus within USDA on F2S, which resulted in the Farm to School Census that surveyed 13,000 school districts about F2S activities in the 2011-2012 school year. The survey identified F2S activities in over 3,800 districts (38,000 schools) in 50 states. 
  • In 2012, the USDA named Deborah Kane as the first head of the USDA’s Farm to School initiative. The program continues to thrive aided by the ongoing support and organization of the NFSN and new programs like Food Corps, which connects students to real food experiences in school through a network of 125 Food Corps fellows (in the style of Americorps).  Currently operating in 15 states, the program is connecting kids to food through gardens and hands-on classroom education. 
  • In 2014, the USDA F2S initiative published the guide, “Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs,” mentioned previously as a key resource for learning and creating your local procurement. The INC Procurement in the 21st Century also covers local procurement extensively.


“Going Local” ‒ Geographic Preference as Cornerstone of School Food Procurement

Over the last 15 years the local food movement has become so popular that we’ve seen resurgence in small farm entrepreneurs and the expansion of farmers markets across the United States. In turn, one of the fastest growing segments in school food menus is the desire to “keep it local.” The trend became official when the 2008 Farm Bill amended the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act to direct the Secretary of Agriculture to encourage Child Nutrition Programs to apply an optional geographic preference known as the “Geographic Preference Option for the Procurement of Unprocessed Agricultural Products in Child Nutrition Programs.”

Since 2008, there has been much discussion and many questions posed, resulting in a need for clarification on 1) how to apply the geographic preference rule in our procurement processes, and 2) how to define local. The most recent clarification published in 2013, provides detailed questions and answers to help you apply the Farm Bill correctly.

In 2013, School Food FOCUS published “Geographic Preference, A primer on purchasing fresh local food for schools,” prepared by the Harrison Center for Public Law, Georgetown Law. This thorough guide provides legal and practical information on how to apply geographic preference as part of the federally-required, competitive procurement procedures. Similarly, the USDA’s Farm to School guide, “Procuring Local Food for Child Nutrition Programs,” provides a step-by-step how-to on Farm to School procurement and is an excellent resource for understanding this important shift in school food.

How to Begin – Local Procurement Assessment

Like all areas of planning, examine where you are now. You may already be serving local foods but aren’t aware of it because your vendor doesn’t identify the product as such. Ask your vendors to include this information on your invoices. Adding “local” as a designation that you track in procurement provides another communication link between what your team does and the broader community. “Buying local” is considered progressive and makes sense for your local economy. It also enables you to serve fresh ingredients and teach kids where their food comes from.

Menu Forecast

Like all areas of procurement your menus will drive the opportunity to expand your use of local foods. Districts that cook from scratch are already prepared for whole, local ingredients, and districts that have a central or regional production model can leverage their volume to be an attractive customer for a local or regional producer. All areas of the menu create opportunity—from meat to vegetables. Your milk is most likely produced in your state since moving fluid milk is expensive. As a result it is one commodity that has retained its regional production and distribution channels, unlike the rest of our food ingredients. 

Sourcing ‒ How to Find Local

Depending on where you are located there may be well-developed procurement channels for sourcing certain products like produce. Using the USDA F2S Census is a quick way to locate any existing procurement or other F2S educational programming in your area.  Additionally, your State Department of Agriculture, local Ag Extension offices, universities, and regional or state non-profits working in the food system arena are all excellent resources to sourcing local foods.

There are also third-party vendors that focus specifically on local procurement for commercial accounts and institutions such as hospitals, universities, and K-12. Examples of these types of vendors include Cherry Capital Foods in Northern Michigan and the previously mentioned Farm Logix. The two models are quite different in that Cherry Capital aggregates farm product, markets it, and delivers it to the district themselves; while Farm Logix creates the supply chain by identifying what products customers are looking for, then finds the growers and available product volume, and ultimately moves that bulk order to a single point for distribution utilizing the customer’s (district’s) existing distribution channel, i.e. Sysco or Gordon’s Food Service.

Another example of a large system shift can be found at the innovative St. Paul Public School District in Minnesota, also a School Food FOCUS district. St. Paul has worked on many procurement projects and their excellent local produce story has been detailed in a case study. St. Paul created efficiency while expanding the volume of local produce purchases as well as enhancing the transparency of the process so that the producer and the net price paid to the producer by the produce processer was identified.

You may unintentionally have some local items in your system now. Establishing the baseline data will allow you to track your growth and illustrate how you expand this area over time. Ask your current vendors what they sell to you now that they consider local and include clear identification of locally sourced foods in your procurement specifications. Food vendors today are highly aware of the public interest in local and regional foods. As demand increases, the infrastructure for accessing local foods will improve. 

Defining “Local” in Your District

Determining the district’s definition of “local” is a necessary step when detailing your vision of procurement. Depending on where your district is located, realistic access to locally grown and raised product may mean a 50-mile radius or it could include the entire state and bordering states. And different product areas may have different designations. For example, produce may be plentiful nearby, but meat may be primarily grown in another region of the state. A district might create a tiered definition including county, region (with a mileage designation), and state. All would be considered local, but the county designation would be preferred.

Procurement Process

With your definition of local in place and your menu forecasting complete, the procurement process is consistent with all of the steps that we’ve outlined previously. The most recent USDA clarification on applying geographic preference is fairly easy to understand. The key take away is that although the USDA doesn’t require you to apply geographic preference, you may use it any time if your goal is to procure unprocessed locally grown or raised agricultural products. The USDA’s Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs provides an excellent step-by-step guide with examples and case studies on the variety of mechanisms that can be utilized to initially procure and expand your procurement of local foods.​

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