New grant supports North Iowa Fresh, farm to school
Though North Iowa Fresh (NIF) has been building markets for local food in the Clear Lake and Mason City region since 2016, 2020 was a breakthrough year in farm to school for their food hub and their region. Support from the Iowa Local Produce and Protein Program (LPPP) helped engage schools for the first time. Many had been interested before but didn’t know where to begin or that a local food hub was available to help.
Nine schools (six K-12 schools and three ECEs) sourced $25,000 worth of local farm products from NIF from March 1- December 1, 2020. This is a drastic increase from 2019, when they worked with three school districts in the area and sold $1,700 of local food to schools.
To fill the increased demand, North Iowa Fresh worked with four new farmers. They found that schools were also able to utilize the local food grants because some received processing grants to acquire equipment that helped them process and store fresh produce. Equipment grants helped farmers better prepare to sell to schools. One farmer received a grant for a potato washer so he can more easily supply potatoes to the hub for farm to school sales.
Virtually all of the food service directors who participated for the first time in 2020 said they were interested in farm to school in years past. But they didn’t know how to get started and were limited by time and budgets. They had no idea a food hub like NIF existed that could help them source a diversity of products from multiple local farms and simplify logistics. Once schools in North Iowa signed up for the Local Produce and Protein Local Food grant, they received materials from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship sharing sources for local food. That resource helped food service directors connect with NIF manager Andrea Evelsizer and find out about the products and services for the first time.
Food service directors step up
With a low-risk opportunity to try farm to school and a local food hub to support them, food service directors got motivated. Seven new schools participated in farm to school with North Iowa Fresh in 2020—a dramatic increase from 2019, when NIF served three schools. All nine school customers participated in the LPPP and drove an impressive increase in NIF’s total farm to school sales. They purchased $25,000 of locally grown products from NIF—an amount Evelsizer calls “totally unprecedented.” In 2019, the total was around $1,700.
Existing school customers were also able to expand farm to school purchasing. In one school district, school administrators were skeptical that their food service director would be able to spend the local food grant dollars. But the director had worked with North Iowa Fresh to order small quantities before and felt confident to pursue the grant, knowing they had a trusted source to procure local products.
Overall, produce made up the bulk of school purchasing—approximately $17,000 worth of sales—while the remaining $8,000 consisted of proteins such as yogurt and pork patties. NIF reached out to four new producers to fill the school demand. They brought on Huntley Gardens, an apple producer, as well as Kittleson Brothers, a potato and onion grower. They also added bulk dried beans from Grimm Family Farm and expanded what had been a pilot program with Country View Dairy into robust yogurt sales to schools. This product expansion also leveraged new partnerships. NIF worked with That Iowa Girl to transport yogurt, and with the Iowa Food Hub to source sweet potatoes.
Trying new things
Evelsizer said that with local food grant money to support purchasing, food service directors approached farm to school with more flexibility and openness. They experimented with multi-colored carrots and purple potatoes, and said the kids really enjoyed trying the colorful vegetables. Schools also purchased local apples, replacing their purchases of pre-bagged apple slices as well as whole apples, which they typically halved to fill serving sizes. Staffed could serve the smaller local apples whole, and students preferred them to the packaged apple slices.
North Iowa Fresh’s experience also underscores how the comprehensive structure of the Produce and Protein Program effectively strengthened farm to school along the entire supply chain. K- 12 schools could be flexible about the variety, sizing and specifications of produce thanks to processing equipment purchased through the grant. Items like commercial food processors significantly reduced the staff time required to prep whole, local produce. This made it feasible to incorporate it into the menu with less concern for sizing.
Schools that usually served baggies of baby carrots avoided fresh, local carrots because of the processing time to chop them by hand. Now, they were able to efficiently process whole carrots into carrot sticks. The same was true for potatoes; schools had required potatoes sized to specifications, so that whole or half potatoes would meet serving guidelines as a baked potato. Now that they were able to efficiently process whole potatoes into wedges, they could source variously sized potatoes for their colorful local potato medley. Coleen Hanig, food service director at West Fork CSD, said that with the new equipment it took her staff less than an hour to turn a 25-lb. case of cabbage and 15 lb. of carrots into a giant batch of coleslaw.
Easier for school staff
The processing equipment grant also helped food service directors get other staff onboard. Evelsizer had heard that some food service staff were worried about serving more local produce, thinking it would be an overwhelming amount of additional work. In the end, with commercial food processing equipment, it all went smoothly. Staff buy-in can be key to long-term farm to school success. In the past, Evelsizer had worked with a passionate food service director who championed farm to school and ramped it up heavily before retiring the following year. After that, the school completely ceased purchasing. Andrea felt the staff struggled with the additional work and therefore were not committed to continuing the program.
Producer equipment grants allowed farmers to meet the specific needs of school markets. Ron Rahut at Fertile Valley Gardens, a longtime producer-member of North Iowa Fresh, received a grant to purchase a stainless-steel barrel washer, cutting down washing times for his potatoes and carrots. Rather than washing about 1.5 lbs. of carrots a minute, he can now wash 10-20 lbs. per minute, efficiently filling the schools’ large wholesale orders. Another NIF vendor, Apples on the Avenue, received a grant for an apple grader. This machine will help them quickly sort apples to meet school serving-size requirements.
North Iowa Fresh also used an equipment grant to improve their aggregation and distribution infrastructure. NIF installed a walk-in cooler that will enable them to store wholesale orders and manage short-term inventory. They also purchased heavy-duty carts and a dolly for improved handling.
Best outcome: new partnerships
While NIF cites many tangible investments made over the course of the program, from infrastructure to sales, the new relationships and collaborations to come out of these grants may be one of the most important benefits. Food service directors who worked with North Iowa Fresh to participate in farm to school now have experiences on which to build.
Food service directors were not only introduced to the food hub, they were also able to learn from each other. NIF and their partner, Healthy Harvest of North Iowa (a non-profit focused on local food system connections and education) hosted virtual networking sessions for farm to school participants to share which local products are available, find creative ideas to incorporate local produce into school menus and celebrate their successes.
In one of their final meetings of 2020, the food service directors reflected on the grant program, their experiences with farm to school, and their plans for the future. The group agreed that that participation in farm to school would not have been feasible without North Iowa Fresh. Planning for local availability and prepping produce already take more time, and they would not have had the time to source each item from an individual producer.
Continuing to build
The participating schools were all willing to consider purchasing local products from NIF in the future, but also noted that pricing could be a limiting factor. They said it was easier to purchase items that didn’t require processing, such as cherry tomatoes, apples and yogurt. They aid the local food grant incentives helped justify purchasing foods that required processing and staff time. Overall, the purchasing incentives proved an important resource for these schools.
The infrastructure and relationships catalyzed with support from the Local Produce and Protein Program Grant will continue to pay dividends in the food system. Because of their success with farm to school this year, Evelsizer thinks schools are primed to participate again next year. She hopes that there will be incentives to help them continue to learn and further solidify the local supply chain.
The Local Produce and Protein Program had a huge impact on NIF—even with a short window to apply and use the funds because they arrived after the height of the local harvest season. Evelsizer sees an opportunity to increase the impact of the program through timing alone. If schools have the opportunity to plan in advance and build fall menus that feature local, NIF can secure more local products at the height of the season and leverage more school purchasing.