Local Produce for School Lunch Program: Distribution

This post is the second in our series of articles about sourcing local produce for school lunch programs.


Determining how to get locally farmed products to the school is often the biggest challenge faced by foodservice staff when instituting a farm to school program.

The most frequent issue cited by school foodservice staff when developing a farm to school program is difficulty transporting locally farmed products to the school. A number of factors should be considered when determining the most effective distribution method for your district, such as the district size, whether the district has centralized versus satellite kitchens, the schools’ storage capacities, and whether farm cooperatives exist in the area. Four distribution methods are outlined below.

Buy directly from individual farmers. Some school foodservice directors have built relationships with individual farmers and buy directly from them.

No middleman so challenges can be overcome quickly and easily
Foodservice staff learns what the farmer grows and can even ask for specific items to be planted

Individual farmers mean more paperwork, more phone calls, more coordination, more deliveries

Buy from a farmer cooperative. A cooperative consolidates multiple farmers’ products and distributes them together.

Reduces administration, paperwork, number of deliveries

May not be an option for all regions
Decreases personal contact with individual farmers

Buy from farmers’ markets. This model is similar to buying directly from farmers, but orders are given to the farmers a few days prior to the farmers’ market and are picked up by the foodservice staff on the day of the farmers’ market.

Ability to inspect before accepting the product
Gives an opportunity to see other growers and their offerings at the market
Can reduce costs since the farmer was already coming to the market

More time consuming since product must be picked up
Works only in regions where the school year and farmers’ markets coincide
Feasible only if the district has a truck and driver available

Order locally grown food through a traditional wholesaler. For this method, foodservice staff purchases from a distributor that offers at least some local products.

Often allows foodservice staff to maintain existing purchasing relationships
Reduces administration and time required to procure local product

No communication with farmers
Unable to guarantee product is locally sourced (can be mitigated by knowing the availability and seasonality of local produce and requesting access to buying records from the broker)

Because of the differences among school districts, there is not a one-size-fits-all or recommended distribution method. Each district, after taking an inventory of their resources and unique circumstances, can choose the distribution method that best fits their situation. For more extensive information on distribution models, see the USDA’s publication Eat Smart – Farm Fresh! A Guide to Buying and Serving Locally-Grown Produce in School Meals.

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