Operations

As supply chain challenges persist, school nutrition teams go local

School districts are increasingly turning to local sources for their proteins, fruits and vegetables. And they're finding those sources more reliable than national vendors.
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Ground beef patties are one of the many products in short supply for school nutrition programs as supply chain disruptions continue nationwide. At Dover-Eyota Public Schools in Eyota, Minn., however, such patties have been easy to come by. 

Instead of working with a national distributor, the district of around 1,100 students sources its beef from a local farmer, going through one steer a year. The cow is fed grain from an area supplier and is also butchered locally. 

“Every dollar that I'm spending on that steer goes back 100% to the community,” says Food Service Director Carrie Frank. 

Dover-Eyota is one of many districts across the country with a farm-to-school program. Along with supporting the local economy and serving students fresh ingredients, sourcing nearby now often has the added benefit of being more reliable than using nationwide distributors, so long as those local farmers and businesses aren’t suffering from procurement or labor issues themselves.

Finding steadiness with local sourcing

At Naugatuck Public Schools in Naugatuck, Conn., the availability of local products has also remained steady despite current supply chain challenges. 

The district, which enrolls over 4,000 students, has been procuring local produce for many years now, says Food Service Director Kate Murphy, whose team partners with a local produce company to coordinate with farmers in the area. 

“I’ll say, ‘I’d like some local apples,’ and they say, ‘Well, we have apples from this farm and this farm,’ and so we kind of choose it, but they do the legwork for me, which is fabulous,” says Murphy. 

The partnership has allowed the team to serve a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to students daily, but the district is still struggling to source other items that come from national distributors. 

“With all of our other lunch items or with breakfast items, things are still a bit harder because they’re coming from all over the place,” says Murphy.  

Meanwhile, many of the farmers who supply local products to Dover-Eyota have connections to the district. “My farmers live in the community, and the kids go to the school district,” says Frank. 

Since fresh produce can be hard to source year-round in Minnesota, Dover-Eyota tends to focus on procuring local animal proteins, such as turkey, beef and eggs. 

When fresh produce is available, Frank keeps things vague, allowing her flexibility when menu planning. 

“I do not name the fruit or vegetable on my menu,” she says. “Instead, I say ‘fruit and vegetable selection.’ That gives me the freedom to call my farmer and say, ‘What do you have available?’”

The district also sources apples from a campus orchard of 15 trees, which was planted in 2010. The apples are given to students fresh or made into apple sauce. 

Potential struggles

Some local products are also hitting roadblocks on their way to school kitchens, however, due to staffing and supply issues.

At Salt Lake City School District in Utah, the local dairy that provides milk to the district and many other schools in the state has been having problems making deliveries since January, says the district’s food service director, Kelly Orton.

Orton says that the dairy has had issues sourcing cartons for the milk and is also struggling to find enough delivery drivers and other workers. As a result, the dairy has been rotating which districts will receive milk. 

“They basically tell a few districts, ‘We don't have milk for you,’ and then a couple days later, some other district has to take the bullet,” he says. 

Over the past few months, Orton has made a couple trips to the dairy to personally pick up milk using the district’s warehouse truck when the dairy’s drivers are unavailable. The district has also begun stocking up on different fruit juices to serve as a replacement beverage. 

“They’re trying to hire drivers, but it just takes an unfortunate accident or a driver getting sick and is out for a few days, and we're out,” says Orton. 

Where to start

Schools looking to incorporate more local products into their menus should start by reaching out to their state’s department of agriculture, says Murphy. 

State departments often have a list of local farmers that can work with schools and many also offer grant opportunities to support local procurement and farm-to-school programs. 

Operators should also work with their state’s health department, says Frank, and plan to start small. “I encourage purchasing local,” she says. “It’s easier than one thinks. Start slow and just ease your way into it. It’ll come very naturally.” 

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