Similar to hospitals, public schools have contracts with vendors already set in place. Like college and university students, children in public schools can also put money towards a “meal plan”. Most public schools offer both breakfast and lunch and change the menu weekly. A growing number of schools are gradually transitioning from pre-made foods to more fresh, scratch cooked options. Given the emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, there is an opportunity for local growers to gain greater access to public school systems. According to the Virginia Department of Education, there are currently 1,822 K-12 schools in Virginia as of the 2017-2018 school year. The USDA has been encouraging school districts to use locally-produced foods in school meals and to use "farm-to-school" activities to spark students' interest in trying new foods. In an article published by NPR, they mentioned that more than a third—36 percent—of U.S school districts reported serving local foods in the 2011-12 or 2012-13 school years. Buying local became more feasible with federal legislation that passed in 2008 as well as 2010, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Farm to School program to get more healthful food in schools and link smaller U.S. farmers with a steady market of lunchrooms.
This market sector represented the highest response rate of any sector surveyed, perhaps because of established farm-to-school programs across the state and the likelihood that school nutrition directors are more aware of food safety concerns due to the population they serve. Although the Public School market sector operates under significant constraints in terms of pricing and logistical challenges, it is a sector with significant growth potential for Virginia farms since many school systems make it a priority to spend commodity money on fresh fruits and vegetables. While accessing this market largely depends on the size and policies of a particular school system, more than half of respondents indicated that they would increase local purchasing of produce if food safety requirements were met, representing an area of opportunity for Virginia producers.
In particular, focus group participants mentioned the USDA pilot procurement program, designed to increase procurement of local produce in schools, but they faced challenges due to a lack of approved suppliers, who would need to meet Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification requirements in order to participate. Thus, the primary channel for school produce procurement is through distributors, since they handle both logistical hurdles, as well as food safety verification. For those schools buying direct from growers, fulfillment of food safety expectations varied widely from verbal assurances to written agreements to document reviews to site visits to third party food safety audits. Thus, while not all schools may require food safety certification at this point in time, there is increased pressure to do so, and those producers having GAP certification tend to gain greater access to selling their produce.
National Public Radio
Why Some Schools Serve Local Food And Others Can't (Or Won't) news story.
USDA ERS National School Lunch Program
ERS research found that offering school lunches with a healthier mix of vegetables, as required by new standards, was associated with higher consumption of these healthy foods.
USDA Farm to School Planning Toolkit
Excellent guide for providing designing a robust farm to school program.
USDA Farm to School Program
Provides resources on a wide range of topics, including food safety resources that are frequently accessed by food service professionals at school systems across the country.
USDA GAP/GHP Audit Program
A voluntary audit program to verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.
USDA Pilot Procurement Program
A pilot program farms and school systems can sign up for that supports the use of locally-grown foods in school meal programs using entitlement funds.
Virginia Department of Education
Virginia Department of Education statistics on local regional schools and sectors for 2017-2018.
Virginia Farm to School Program
A program within the VA Dept. of Agriculture to cultivate market opportunities, and increase the volume of locally grown foods served in schools at all levels of education.
Virginia Farm to School Resource Guide
A toolkit with research-based information, resources, and advice to support the development of farm to school connections and procurement.