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Working with a Distributor to Serve Local Food in Schools

teri_webinar

This was the sixth webinar in a series about local food procurement from USDA’s Farm to School Program focused on procuring local through a distributor.

In any farm to school program, the food distributor is a key component and a vital ally. The USDA’s latest webinar on procuring local foods in schools focused on working with distributor. (We were especially excited about this webinar because it featured Georgia Organics’ own Teri Hamlin!)

As we learned in the last webinar, in solicitations for vendors, you can include product specifications that can be more easily met with a local product, and can require vendors to meet certain criteria (like willingness to work with local farmers) in order to be deemed “responsible.” Read more about that here.

You can also include why you’re interested in local products in the introduction of your solicitation. Do you want to purchase local foods because of the economic impact on your community, the wellness impact on your students, to connect the school with the community, another reason, or all three? Including your reasons for wanting local food in your introduction does not make it a requirement, but it does show your interest in supporting local producers. For example, your solicitation introduction could include, “The Nutrition Department of _____ Schools works to connect our schools and local food producers to improve student nutrition, provide agriculture and nutrition education opportunities, and support local farmers.”

However, you may not need to include any of those things in your solicitation if you have a strong relationship with your distributor. Even if you already have a contract in place, connect with your distributor to see if they are willing to work with local farmers, or if they already do. It’s incredibly important to build relationships with distributors. Here are some tips to do so:

  • Have a pre-bid meeting, including the school nutrition director, the distributor, and local farmers. During the meeting, encourage everyone to speak openly and honestly to show that everyone in the room wants to work toward the same goal of getting local foods into schools, and to make sure everyone has the same expectations about the process.
  • Tour the distributor’s facility, and reciprocate by inviting them to tour a school cafeteria. This gives the schools a chance to check out the distributor’s operation, and shows the distributor how the schools are serving and presenting their products.
  • Develop a culture of working in partnership with the distributor. The best school/distributor/farmer relationships are those that share a philosophy about their work and their customer, and in which all parties involved know each other and feel able to speak honestly and work well together.
  • Work one-on-one with the distributor to troubleshoot issues particular to local purchases (i.e.: fluctuating market prices due to season).

Depending on your farm to school program, here are some other potential ways to make local sourcing through a distributor work well:

  • Develop collaborative pick-up sites if farm roads are difficult for large distributor trucks to navigate. Multiple farms can have their products picked up in the same location.
  • Coordinate consistent crates or boxes that all farmers use to pack their products and that are easy for distributors to handle.
  • Involve the distributor in a farmer workshop. Not only will this help the distributor get to know the farmers better, distributors can lead trainings on the best way to pack boxes and crates, or some other expertise. This keeps the lines of communication open and helps farmers and distributors develop solutions to issues collaboratively.

The biggest take-away from this training on working with distributors is to have a good, working relationship in which the distributor, the school nutrition director, and any farmers involved feel able to communicate and work together toward a common goal of feeding students fresh, local food.

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