In the last decade, Maryland has made progress in the locally-sourced food movement. Farmers markets have been popping up everywhere. The number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms has been growing. Livestock producers have started selling locally. Wine production has been growing rapidly.
However, the USDA studies reveal that farmers need access to grocery stores, restaurants and institutions serving food to tap into a significant percentage of the regional food budget (which I estimate to be about $26 Billion).
While schools and colleges are significant purchasers of food, many experts used to dismiss them as a potential local market, since schools are not in session when farm production is at its peak. However, farmers have taken steps to extend their growing seasons and not all farm products go to market exclusively in the summer.
Is there really a future for Farm to School programs?
In its recently published online Farm to School report, the USDA notes that “In school year 2011-2012, schools participating in farm to school activities purchased and served over $350 million in local food, with more than half of participating schools planning to purchase even more local foods in future school years.” Some Maryland counties are doing a great job. For example, Howard County schools reported that it spent 30% of its food budget locally on fruit, vegetables, milk, dairy products, meat/poultry, eggs, grain/flour and baked goods. Baltimore City public schools came in a close second, spending 29% of its food budget locally. At the other end of the scale, some counties are spending around 1% of the food budget locally and others are not buying any locally sourced food.
Why isn’t there more participation? When I was a student in the public school system, each school had a cafeteria with cooking equipment and cooks who made the meals. Many schools are no longer equipped to cook food and many school systems have all of their food delivered, packaged and processed from a company. It is easier, often cheaper and it reduces liability, as the food is not prepared by the school system.
On the other hand, parents have been complaining about nutrition of the breakfasts and lunches served, and economists note that communities who outsource their food are sending their food dollars out away from their local economy. To address these concerns, some school systems have been trying to purchase locally-sourced fresh, healthy food. They have identified a number of challenges, including:
- Supply is often too small to serve large school systems,
- Supply of certain goods is dependent on weather and schools systems are reluctant to place orders when they may not be filled, and
- Smaller farms have difficulty meeting the price point that schools systems are required to meet.
To provide a more reliable local food system, we need an effective system of food aggregation and distribution. ATTRA has prepared a report (updated in 2013) called Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions: A Resource Guide for Farm to Institution Programs. It provides examples of local programs that source food year-round, even in climate challenged Montana. On October 16th, the National Good Foods Network presented Food Hubs and Farm to School which presented examples of food hubs that source food to school systems. The recorded webinar is available online.
Based on the success stories found in these reports, I believe that farmers and Maryland institutions can work together to take locally-sourced food to the next level!