Are tight school budgets really an obstacle to farm-to-school success?

One of the supposed obstacles to expanding the farm-to-school effort that gets local food into the school lunchroom is the tight budgets that school food programs operate under.

But a survey this spring of 67 Minnesota food producers interested in the school market indicates this may not be the problem some have thought. Everyone who responded to the survey by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said he or she had gotten a fair price from schools; 83 percent said prices schools paid were about the same as those paid by other customers.

That was probably the biggest surprise in the survey, said the IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp. Taking the temperature of food producers is the flip side of another survey the organization has been taking annually for three years, tracking the number of schools buying from local suppliers. The latest of those surveys counted 123 schools in the state with some kind of local produce program last year.

Taken together, the projects show that the two sides of the equation are looking for information about the other. Schools want to know what’s available when; growers in the latest survey identified as one of their challenges schools’ demand for specific quantities at specific dates.

“You’ve got two communities of people trying to connect with each other,” Berkenkamp said. “Farmers are looking for a sign from the market.”

One third of the growers identified guaranteeing a set amount of produce on a specific date as a challenge, more than any other challenge cited. And more than 80 percent said they wanted more information about what schools want specifically.

The teachable moments apparently get right down to what kind of potato works. One grower said one school was more flexible with different sizes of red potatoes than it was with russet potatoes.

You can find the whole survey here and you can learn more about the challenges to the local food movement at our Ground Level topic page.

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