Local and Regional Procurement


“Buying local” is commonly associated with fresh food sourced from neighboring farmers or producers.  In school food service, “Farm to School” has become the primary term for this idea. 

So what is Farm to School (also referred to as F2S, Farm to Institution, and Farm to Cafeteria)? While the title appears straightforward, it certainly represents more than just “buying local.” It’s a mindset and an approach to connect food education to the process of raising healthy kids. F2S activities encompass everything from planting a garden to visiting a farm to using locally grown ingredients in a menu. F2S can also include teaching kids to cook with local foods, and bringing farmers to school to teach kids about farming and food production. From an economic perspective, the positive impact of school districts investing in their local economy is enormous. The USDA’s 2015 Farm to School Census has indicated that 789 million dollars have been invested in local food and milk purchases in just one school year.

Early F2S activities began in the late 1990s in a small number of schools. The concept grew as a grassroots movement supported by many organizations working on the re-establishment and growth of regional food systems. The activity was noticed at the federal level, and in 2004, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act established a federal farm to school program (which 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, the Farm Bill established geographic preference as a way to support 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 (HHFKA) 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 subsequent growth of F2S was remarkable. The impact of HHFKA created a special focus within USDA on F2S, which resulted in the first 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. F2S is now housed under the broader initiative, Community Food Systems.
  • 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.


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

Over the last 15 years, the local food movement has driven a 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 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, which directed 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 National Farm to School Network provides up to date information on farm to school policies - including Geographic Preference and the Farm Bill - at the local, state and national level.

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 unintentionally have some local items in your system, if your vendor doesn’t identify the production source. Ask your vendors if they consider current items as 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.

Also, add “local” as a designation to track in your procurement system. Establishing the baseline data now will showcase your growth and illustrate how you expand this area over time.  Setting procurement goals and sharing the data is an incredibly useful way to message your program’s innovations, especially the link between your school and the broader community. “Buying local” is considered progressive, as well as helpful for the local economy. As an added bonus, fresh ingredients are a great opportunity for lunchroom education and connecting kids with their local environment.

Sourcing ‒ How to Find Local

Forecasting and Sourcing Local Foods for Your Menus

As in all areas of procurement, your menus will drive the opportunity to expand the use of local foods. Districts that cook from scratch are already prepared for whole, local ingredients, and districts with 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, milk is one commodity that has retained its regional production and distribution channels, unlike the rest of our food ingredients. 

Depending on location, 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 for 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. Cherry Capital aggregates farm product, markets it, and delivers to the district themselves. On the other hand, Farm Logix identifies desired products, then find 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.

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.

From the Blog

Inside the Lunch Box – Recipes and Menus

Getting back to scratch cooking in schools

Twenty years ago, scratch cooking in schools was in decline. Processing commodities into ready-to-serve items—complete with CN labels—aligned well with slashing personnel budgets and out-of-date kitchen equipment. Food innovation was defined by manufacturing, ease of use, and an expectation that...


Visit our Procurement Tools & Resources page for worksheets, calculators, signage, guides, and more.

Register to Download The Lunch Box Tools

Please help us keep The Lunch Box tools and resources free for all users by registering here! It will help us demonstrate to our supporters how this site is used in school food work.