Maricopa Farm Tour takes steps to localize school lunches

"How can we get more local foods into our school cafeterias?" It's a question we hear at Local First Arizona (LFA) often and while it seems to be an easy question to answer, it is not as cut and dry as simply heading to the nearest farmers market for school lunches. Extensive regulations on how schools purchase, or procure, foods make it hard for schools to give preference to any one producer. Couple that with the fact that school food budgets are very limited (between $0.75 and $1.20 per student for one meal, depending on the district) and the situation gets murky. The good news is that there are districts who are finding ways to creatively navigate the procurement processes and budget limitations they face. School food service administrators are also receiving opportunities to meet and share their success stories, as well as meet the local food producers around them in an effort to strategize on the problems they face. One such opportunity was the Farm to School Maricopa Farm Tour, funded by the Steele Foundation and put on by the Arizona Department of Education, The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and LFA this past week. Over 20 food service administrators climbed on a bus for a tour of two farms and a local processing plant to make connections with local food producers, with the goal of constructing ways to work within the strict procurement regulations faced by most, if not all, school districts in their quest to localize their school lunches.

The food service workers attending the tour ranged from kitchen staff to district food service directors coming from public, private and charter schools around Arizona, including Tucson, Glendale, Deer Valley, Casa Grande, Phoenix and Tempe. David Schwake, Food Service Director of Litchfield School District, was happy to see such high participation levels.  "12 years ago, when I first started buying from the local farmers for Litchfield, it felt like I was the only one asking how we could move towards more locally grown items in our school food.  Interest is finally getting to a tipping point-- hopefully soon, we can figure this thing out, and hopefully it'll be before I retire," joked David, whose district is often cited as a major success story for its use of local foods.


Ashley Schimke, Farm to School Program Specialist for the Department of Education, coordinated the Maricopa Farm tour for the school food service workers, and sees promise in helping to foster relations between schools and growers. "There is real opportunity to keep local dollars here if we can figure out how to effectively procure local foods," says Schimke. An elementary school district with 10-14 schools in its jurisdiction could have up to $2 million annually budgeted solely for food. To keep even 10% of that budget go towards Arizona-grown food would not only be a huge support for the local food industry, but would ensure that food is that much fresher when it gets to our children's lunches.

However, there are still some major hurdles to clear in the movement to get fresher, local food into schools. Normally, when a school goes to buy anything, including food, they have to follow a highly regulated bid process,  that includes submitting a request for quotes. Normally, decisions on what to buy is based on the least expensive bid, which can be a problem for local growers, as their produce may cost a bit more than the larger food distributors that are able to produce a similar product more inexpensively. Growers also might have varying supplies of a certain food throughout the season, which makes them weary of actually submitting quotes for larger amounts of food. While this is a tight regulation, there are ways around it. Recently, it was found that federal regulations allow for "geographical preference" in the bidding process, which changes the evaluation from being based off lowest cost to being based off geographic proximity. While this option is not streamlined and a majority of districts are not aware of how they can successfully use this option in their bidding, food service directors are taking small steps to see what they can and cannot do.


Fresh is an understatement on this tour, and we get the experience firsthand at our first stop at Rousseau's carrot processing plant in Southwest Phoenix. This second generation family-owned plant processes 8-10 million pounds of carrots grown in and around Metropolitan Phoenix each year. Turn around from field to consumer is less than two days, meaning only the freshest carrots for Arizona dinner tables. Carrots are seen as one of the gateway vegetables for schools looking to begin sourcing local foods. As the red tape involved in education procurement makes diverging from large food distributors very difficult, most schools that have success are starting out small. Carrots, along with greens and apples are the gateway foods that are opening the doors to localizing school lunches.

Duncan Family Farm is our second stop and is a locally owned, organic farm of a medium size, with about 2,500 acres in Litchfield, just west of Phoenix. Duncan has been supplying Litchfield School District with greens and has hopes of filling every school salad bar in the state with organic lettuce. Farmer and owner Arnett Duncan is especially proud of the organic integrity Duncan maintains as the regions largest producer of organic leafy greens in the winter months. He acknowledges that growers and buyers need to work together to make the connections work: "We need to learn about the procurement rules in the school systems and we (the schools and the farmers) need to get efficient together," said Farmer Arnett Duncan to the school food service workers. "We know there are challenges, and we will do whatever we can to help make the process easier." The food administrators nodded in agreement; it will definitely take both sides putting their heads together to take it to the next level.

Our third stop was Crooked Sky Farms of South Phoenix, where the food service administrators were able to get into the fields and examine the naturally grown produce first hand. Just as Duncan Family Farms let them know they were interested in helping schools get fresh produce, Crooked Sky Farms let them know they are looking to make ordering easy and they will do what it takes to get schools priority orders. They also sent the administrators home with baby tomato plants and a box of vegetables, including potatoes, turnips, kale and beets. During question and answers with the growers of Crooked Sky, administrators from Casa Grande and Phoenix solidified plans to place orders for produce in the coming months.


The farm tour solidifies the fact that interest in getting local, fresh food in our schools is definitely increasing for all parties involved, especially as more than a few of the tour participants mentioned parents in their respective districts are getting more vocal about getting healthier food in schools. Also, more school administrators outside of the cafeteria are noticing the effects of serving more whole, fresh foods to their children. Chef Darlene Smith of the Youth Development Institute spoke of the difference in behavior her co-workers had noticed after making the switch to less canned, pre-processed produce to fresher, seasonal produce. Food as a behavior-normalizer is gaining recognition and she has witnessed it firsthand. "We've noticed fresh food in the school meals make the students' attention span longer. The kids are more well behaved when they have fresher, whole foods in their lunches. The teachers come up to me and let me know they notice a positive difference. That is huge validation for our kitchen."

On the ride back to the U of A Cooperative Extension, the group received a run down on the future food safety regulations from Haley Paul, the Urban Agriculture Specialist for the U of A College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.  Food Safety is often cited as a concern when talk of buying food locally is proposed to school procurement, and Haley spends her time educating many smaller-sized growers and buyers on what needs to be done in terms of food safety to reach new markets. “Traceability is buyer-driven. As more and more parents, schools and consumers in general want to make the shift to local foods, we help to ensure growers are aware of the customizable food safety programs put forth by the USDA.” Sharing the knowledge is essential, and the farms we visited today were well aware of the increase in market share they experienced when they standardized their food handling practices.


Getting more recognition outside of the cafeteria seems to be essential to making the local shift in school lunches. Just a few minutes before Darlene's story, I had been speaking with a worker from a central city school district who mentioned it was incredibly difficult for her to get upper management to support the Farm to School Program and other food initiatives the cafeteria is involved in. "Even when we get positive press about what we are doing, it's hard to get the people in charge to show up. If they (the principals and other top-level administrators) could see the benefits for themselves, we'd have a much easier time getting some of these requests through."


The Farm Tour ended with a panel session at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. The panel session comprised of Patty Emmert, Specialty Crop Manager for Duncan Family Farms; Linda Rider who serves as Food Service Director of Tempe Elementary School District; and David Schwake, Food Service Director of Litchfield Elementary School District. The talk highlighted Tempe and Litchfield's efforts to get as localized as possible in delivering food to their students. Each district has taken steps within the current procurement regulations and has been successful in procuring greens, apples, carrots, and other local foods into their menus. Linda Rider of Tempe has found particularly interesting way to get local foods in schools by using the geographical preference option in a "seasonal" way. Citing a seasonal use of apples has opened the door to getting apples grown in Wilcox, Arizona during the months when they are available. David has been partnering with Duncan Family Farms for over 10 years, noting that one of the reasons schools should support local farmers is that farms pay high property taxes--taxes that, in turn, fund our local schools.


The day ended with the administrators asking themselves who else could be brought into the conversation to make this process easier. How do we get procurement officers involved in the problem solving? How do we get food producers approved as recognized certifiably safe food purveyors? As soon as the questions were asked, it seemed that constructive answers came about that had not been thought of before, including approaching a food service co-op in southern Arizona for help as well as making the topic a breakout session in the upcoming conference of Arizona Association of School Business Officials. The farm tour participants traded contact information and continued to network well after the panel had ended, signifying the event had well served its purpose. Bringing the food service administrators together on the tour had not only introduced ways that schools could start localizing their food, but had created some opportunities to explore more long term solutions for bringing local food to local cafeterias. As we leave, Patty Emmert comments that she looks forward to the days when schools will be able to forecast their need for local produce during planting season, so as to ensure entire harvests make it into school lunches. With more connecting sessions like these, that idea is not too far away from fruition.


Photo credits: Margaree Bigler