How to Develop School Food Policy - Go the Extra Mile

Before getting your hands dirty, list the important criteria for your school food policy— Which of these criteria are most important for your school food policy? Which combination of factors are you going to focus your efforts on to improve the food that your school buys?

What is the legal and statutory framework for buying from local sources?
Buying locally is giving preference to local food in a way that many school administrators think is not acceptable by federal standards. But, unless there is a specific federal statute that says your school has to buy food from a specific geographic region, it is generally acceptable to buy food locally if you prefer. It is even okay to buy food locally using federal dollars. The 2002 Farm Bill states that schools involved in the school lunch program may even be encouraged to purchase local food. You can learn more about the laws related to purchasing from a local source in this packet developed by Richard Kaplan and Matthew Porterfield of the Harrison Institute, and Peter Riggs of the Forum on Democracy & Trade. Start by reading “Helping Schools Buy Local: An Overview.” Then, we recommend you check out the “Local Food Procurement Power Point” before moving on to the other documents.

Learn how to actually develop a policy—
Strategic Alliance offers tools to help you along the way as you re-develop your school’s food policy. They provide a framework for rethinking food policy, a description of situations you’ll face along the way, and more comprehensive guides addressing the other issues, such as the Guide to Developing a Sustainable Food Purchasing Policy by Food Alliance, and The School Foods Kit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

For a very thorough guide, check out A Guide to Developing a Sustainable Food Purchasing Policy by AASHE with contributions from many partners of the Sustainable Food Policy Project. Though the guide is written primarily for large institutions like universities and hospitals, it can still be very helpful for K-12 schools because of the breadth of advice it offers.

Another guide created specifically for K-12 schools is available through PaperClip Communications, but unfortunately you have to purchase it. Here you can view the topics it covers, as well as sample pages.

As you develop your policy, think about ways you can use it to help meet your state’s requirements for nutrition and physical activity.

While developing policy, you should address the concerns many administrators have about purchasing local food—
The Oregon Department of Education recently conducted a poll where 181 foodservice providers for K-12 schools were surveyed on their thoughts about purchasing local food. They voiced many common concerns about the issues schools face. Many of these concerns also extend to the purchasing of sustainable or organic foods. Therefore, the results of the survey shed light on issues that are important to be aware of as you bring school food policy to the table.

These were the top concerns for food providers in schools…
  • cost of local food (86.2%)
  • safety of the food (75.4%)
  • delivery considerations (73.1%)
  • reliability of the supply (66.2%)
  • seasonality of fruits and vegetables (63.8%)
  • quality of the food (57.7%)
Providers who won’t purchase local foods again list these reasons…
  • inconsistent quality (30.6 %)
  • reliability (13.9 %)
  • price (36.1 %)
  • too much effort (16.7 %)
  • availability of local sources (16.7 %)
  • health regulations, food safety, and liability (11.1 %)
  • getting approval from the school board, U.S. FDA, or state contracts (11.1 %)
  • variety offered (2.7 %)
  • delivery (2.7 %)
Less than 10% of the schools in the survey were willing to pay more for local food. How could you develop your school food policy to address that concern? Do some of the benefits of local food for student health and education outweigh higher costs?

Another report sheds some light on the concerns of food service providers about purchasing food from local farms, specifically. The report by food consultant, JoAnne Berkenkamp, points out two major roadblocks toward purchasing farm-fresh food. First, many schools depend on one or two distributors to get most of their products and are limited to what those distributors carry. Second, they are often tied to these distributors because they usually offer lower prices, and the distributors may not be able to offer the same low prices if they sold local or sustainable products.

Therefore, your policy should focus on achieving the following goals, which Minnesota foodservice directors said would make purchasing locally-grown produce easier…
  • The ability to get the produce from distributors
  • A competitive price that fits with the reality of a school budget
  • Effective strategies to ensure an adequate quantity and quality of the items needed, in addition to a reliable delivery mechanism and protections for liability issues
  • Access to some local produce that has been processed beyond just its raw form
Now that you’re aware of the concerns decision-makers might have, emphasize the positives revealed in the study
  • Because many schools in the same region tend to depend on the same distributors, if a few local schools demand more access to local and sustainable products, the distributors will probably be much more willing to negotiate. This will also pave an easier path for other schools in the region when they decide they want to use more local and sustainable foods for themselves.
  • Though some local products are more expensive than non-local products offered through a distributor, sometimes this price is offset by much lower transportation costs.
  • According to the study, many distributors said they simply don’t make local products a priority for purchase or marketing simply because most school foodservice directors don’t ask for them. What if school foodservice directors did start asking for the products? Maybe they would become more available and the choices for them would start being visible through marketing so that other schools could be aware of the local and sustainable choices on the market.
How can your food policy tie into other green school policies?—
Take some time to consider all the ways that your food policy could have a positive impact on other school policies. For example, do the food products you buy come in containers that are recyclable, and how does this fit in with your school’s recycling goals and recycling policy? Check out our Recycling Chapter to brainstorm some ideas.

Also, if some of your motivation for re-working food policy is because of students’ health, then how could you combine food policy and transportation policy to maximize student health? Maybe you could initiate a recess before lunch policy or a walking school bus. Check out this list of resources by the Center for Science in the Public Interest for help using transportation policy to boost student health.

If a walking school bus interests you, read our Transportation Chapter for ideas on greening your school’s transportation!

Last but certainly not least, think about how the food policy may be able to tie into your educational policies or strengthen your school’s academic objectives? For example, there are numerous educational benefits to having a farm-to-school program, a garden, or simply buying local or sustainable sources of food that students can learn the value of in the classroom. You could write a provision into your policy that says you will buy some products from your distributor and others directly from a farm-to-school program. According to food consultant JoAnne Berkenkamp, by phrasing it as a “both/and” proposition to your suppliers rather than an “either/or” proposition, you can preserve the chance for your students to engage in educational experiences directly related to the farm that supplies some of their food. Furthermore, keeping a direct connection to the farm can inspire students to feel a genuine connection to their food and the people and environment that produces it.

Study examples of functioning food policies—
Strategic Alliance ENACT offers a stellar list of various school food policies that you can learn from which are already in place across the country.