Farm to School in Action in Yolo, Part 2: the Forager Program!

Sacramento ValleyProcurement enthusiasts, this one’s for you!

Kristy Lyn Levings is the Project Director of Farm to School Yolo housed at the Yolo County Department of Agriculture. She is also part of the farming team at Chowdown Farm raising livestock and retailing at local farmers markets. She is the CAFF Regional Lead for the Sacramento Valley. Please visit their website: www.HarvestHubYolo.com for more information about Yolo County, its products, and its people.

In our last blog post, we explored the nuts and bolts of putting together our ‘Farms & Schools Marketplace Exchange’ and why. This large event brought farmers and school food service together in a ‘speed-dating’ type format where they exchanged profiles and started purchasing relationships. We did extensive follow-up in the weeks afterward to see how those budding relationships may or may not have translated into sales.

Despite the fact that 27% of farmers walked out with sales the day of the event, and 87% of surveyed school food buyers said ‘Yes they would definitely be purchasing in the future’, we discovered that just a few weeks after the event, there was relatively little follow-through by either party.

A few gung-ho farmers and school food service made sales directly after the event, but many didn’t follow-up when we checked in with attendees 2 weeks, 4 weeks, even two months after the event.

However, something else began to happen. Although the bulk of attendees didn’t immediately talk to one another about sales- they did continue talking to us, the event organizers about what they wanted. How interesting!

So we asked ourselves and others: “What would move things forward?” The answer came back along the lines of more experience in one another’s respective worlds.

This is when we started challenging ourselves to better deepen the relationships one-on-one: Farm tours, Conference calls with buyers & sellers, mediating sales from start to finish. It has become the Part 2 of our work here at the Yolo County Ag Department- Farm to School Yolo. Building on the ‘Farms & Schools Marketplace Exchange’, we are working on a one-on-one basis foraging for specific products with individual schools and hand-selected farms.

In particular, taking buyers to meet farmers on Farm Tours has turned out to be eye opening for both parties. Farmers were able to ask point blank about school buying practices such as pricing, time to payment, and distribution logistics. I think farmers were often surprised to hear how quickly some schools can pay their invoices, or that price wasn’t the biggest driver for school sourcing- that in fact schools did have the budget to buy.

And likewise, these farm tours have helped school food buyers to have a better understanding of what’s in season and when. As well as what the packing shed process looks like and how product is travelling from the tree or ground to a packed box headed for their lunchroom.

As a result- we’ve seen some strong sales come out of this! Since the Marketplace Exchange attended by 16 farms plus our subsequent forager relationship building, we’ve seen sales for at least 10 of them.

So what happens next? As we’ve learned, it’s really all about the relationship. Our path forward is to help continue making those relationships as smooth as possible for both sides. We’ve learned that sometimes, a farm isn’t perfectly business ready due to difficulties in distribution or food safety certification. We’ve also learned that schools don’t always know the quantity of product they’re looking for. They’ve never ordered by the box, the pack or the pound before.

As we discover barriers like those, we’ll continue to figure out ever more creative ways to get the job done. One important piece of our path forward is continue to highlighting that despite the different worlds our buyers and sellers come from- they both want to accomplish the same thing: Local Food, Lower Food Miles, & Better Nutrition for Kids. That sounds like a delicious future to me and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

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