Before her current role as the farm-to-school and nutrition specialist at the New Mexico Public Education Department, FoodCorps alum Kendal Chavez worked in a school in the state for over a decade. There, she noticed firsthand the shift toward incorporating locally grown food in school foodservice programs.
Due to lack of support for small farmers in the state, however, she saw that many schools were purchasing from the same large farms over and over, many of which were run by older white men.
“We may say we want to do farm to school, and we may provide funds for schools, but if there's no capacity for the program to function and farmers don't have a support system to sell their food equitably and extensively across the state, then we're kind of missing the mark,” says Chavez.
Today, Chavez and others are working to expand and diversify New Mexico’s farm-to-school program through the state’s Approved Supplier Program, which was created in partnership with its Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, Department of Early Childhood Education and Department of Aging and Long Term Services. Currently in the second year of its pilot, the Approved Supplier Program aims to remove barriers that keep small farmers in New Mexico from getting their product into schools and other institutions.
Setting up the pilot components
One of the pilot’s first goals was to streamline the purchasing process. Since each school district and other noncommercial operations in the state can have their own requirements and price points, it can be confusing for farmers.
“It's very problematic for a small-scale farmer who doesn't know how to sell to an institution like a school,” Chavez says. “So, the first line of thinking was to streamline those requirements across the state so that a farmer could access all the districts if they wanted to using the same type of product, using a similar price point and a similar vendor onboarding process.”
Another obstacle farmers face is certification. Big commodity farms are able to pay the large fees required to become Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified and third-party audited, but that can be a daunting challenge for smaller, minority farmers. Chavez and her team knew they would have to come up with a separate certification system that would be accessible to the small farmers they were targeting.
“I would say 90% of the farmers that we work with through the schools are five acres and less,” says Chavez. “The idea was: How do we create an alternate food safety certification system that is trusted and vetted by the state that doesn't require the farmer to pay thousands of dollars for every site visit from the auditor through the GAP or other third-party certification process?”
The state’s Department of Agriculture worked to create a low-cost training certification program available in multiple languages that occurs every year and is paired with a food safety plan. In addition, the program offers training opportunities to help farmers better understand how to get their produce into schools and holds an annual meeting where foodservice buyers and member farmers come together to participate in virtual networking.
Once farmers complete their training and are certified, they are added to an approved supplier list that goes to districts, daycare centers, senior centers and other program participants in July.
One challenge the program faced early on was getting farmers to understand that it would not cause them to lose customers.
“We have a lot of old-school farmers that were not happy about this because, for them, it meant losing part of the market,” says Chavez.
Using data from the school districts involved, the team worked to show farmers how the need for local ingredients far outweighed the supply and that there was enough demand to go around.
Language barriers have also proven to be an obstacle when reaching out to smaller, minority-owned farms, and the program’s stakeholders have been working with partners in the Navajo nation to translate training materials into their native language.
Additionally, COVID-19 has brought on its own set of unique challenges. “[Farmers] prefer [in-person] training—they don't want to do webinars and things like that,” says Chavez. “So that was a challenge in the beginning, and we just had to deal with it and handle it.”
Faced with budget constraints and uncertainty of their own, Chavez also says many foodservice directors have held off this year on expanding their farmer network.
“What we're seeing is that many of our buyers are just kind of doubling down on their existing relationships, and not expanding to anything new for obvious reasons,” she says.
She hopes that as the country returns to normal, operators will be more eager to purchase from new farmers: “[It’s] an ongoing challenge. But I think it will be easier once we're out of the current budgetary situation and the emotional situation everybody's in right now.”
The future of farm-to-school
Still in its pilot phase, the goal is to have the Approved Supplier Program formally rolled out by this summer. Chavez says they also hope to begin looking at how student-grown produce could be incorporated.
And for school districts whose state doesn’t have something similar to the supplier program, Chavez encourages them to create their own process for how farmers can get local produce in their schools.
“I would say even for small districts and schools to really consider formalizing, even if it's not an request for proposal (RFP) process … how they onboard farmers,” she says, “what their requirements are, what languages they include and how accessible that information is to the community, and then provide ongoing touchpoints for farmers to connect with your district.”