Tuesday, April 7, 2020

WSDA planning meetings connected farmers and school buyers

Chris Iberle, WSDA Farm to School 

Seattle Public Schools nutrition staff meet with farmers and distributors
about supplying fresh fruits and vegetables to the district’s snack program.
Farmers and school nutrition staff have a lot in common. They have some of the busiest jobs, and do a lot of different things depending on the season. They also care about feeding kids nutritious foods, teaching students about agriculture and where food comes from, and supporting local farms in their communities.  

Back in January and February -- before the current pandemic imposed physical distancing restrictions -- WSDA Farm to School organized four meetings where farmers and school buyers could network and plan sales. These meetings in different parts of the state aimed to help farmers and nutrition staff collaborate on using more Washington-grown products in schools’ scratch-cooked meals.

Thirty-four farmers, food hubs, processors, or other local food suppliers met with 16 school districts. They built relationships, learned about school buyer needs, and relayed what products are available from Washington producers. Each school district shared information about products they’d be interested in purchasing, how much and how often, for farmers to use in market and production planning. 

All the meetings had great energy and enthusiasm as attendees worked together to support Washington agriculture and provide nutritious meals to students.

Supportive farm to school approach

This was the first time WSDA hosted farm to school meetings focused on networking and planning to increase schools’ purchases of Washington-grown foods. We worked with city, county, and nonprofit partners to co-host and provide outreach to farmers and schools interested in farm to school. 

Each meeting looked a bit different depending on the local needs and priorities.

  • Seattle Public Schools met with four farms and two food hubs about supplying the district with fresh fruits and vegetables for a snack program. The program was developed with the support of City of Seattle and FEEST. It prioritized bringing in new vendors, particularly small businesses owned by women or people of color.
  • In Walla Walla, the Sustainable Living Center’s Walla Walla Valley Farm to School Program helped farmers and school districts prepare for the meeting by assessing their needs and requirements for effective partnerships. Attendees also discussed the logistics of getting more food grown in Walla Walla Valley into school kitchens.
  • Bethel School District hosted farmers and nutrition staff from nine districts in Puyallup. Producers attended with a wide array of Washington products to offer, including tree fruit, berries, vegetables, seafood, eggs, beef, pork, chicken, yogurt, flour and grains.
  • In Grandview, four school districts met with tree fruit, vegetable, and pork farmers, and discussed topics ranging from food safety standards to planning purchases around the growing season.

School district nutrition staff from around Central Washington meet in
Grandview with farmers, distributors and processors.
From relationships and discussions coming out of the meetings, multiple school districts and producers reported new purchases and sources for Washington-grown products for their school meals.

Value of relationships

Furthermore, the momentum from the meetings has extended into the current COVID-19 response. WSDA helped organize a call on April 2 connecting an agency and non-profit team with farms, suppliers, distributors, and other industry partners. The call included many of the attendees from our February meetings.  

Our goal was to respond to immediate K-12 school and childcare food needs and fill shortages for certain items used in their new and evolving meal distribution models, such as grab-and-go, sack lunches, and weekly food boxes. 

To survey and respond to food-supply need, WSDA is working with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Child Nutrition, United Way King County, Department of Children, Youth and Families, and Childcare Aware.

For resources and tools to support ongoing farm to school efforts with your districts and farms, visit WSDA’s Farm to School Toolkit. Or contact me - Chris Iberle, WSDA Regional Markets’ Farm to School Lead, at ciberle@agr.wa.gov. I’d be happy to support starting, expanding, or growing farm to school in your community, and to find out about future activities.