Nebraska’s food producers will soon have the opportunity to learn how to sell their products to school districts.
Nebraska’s Farm to School program is part of a national network aimed at bringing healthy, local food to students. Out of the more than 1,300 schools in Nebraska, 563 currently participate in the Farm to School Program. This encompasses over 235,000 students.
Bringing the Farm to School: Local Producer Training will take place on March 3 at 9 a.m. at the Douglas-Sarpy County Extensions Office in Omaha.
Sarah Smith, Farm to School coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Education, said the training will consist of four modules designed to help farmers, ranchers and other food producers to develop a plan for selling their products to schools.
“Ideally, folks will walk away prepared to take some next steps in pursuing selling to schools,” Smith said.
Smith said the training will also include information about how to leverage different programs in the school district.
“Are they offering different snacks in their after school program?” she added. “Do they have a school breakfast program where they could potentially slide in or substitute a local food item for something that isn’t coming locally?”
One of the most popular Farm to School programs is Nebraska Thursdays, where schools serve locally sourced meals on the first Thursday of every month. Smith said this can range from one item to an entire tray of food grown and produced within the state.
Pekarek’s Produce in Dwight has been selling fruits and vegetables to school districts in the region for 10 years. Currently, the company provides produce for the Omaha, Grant and Butler school districts.
Ryan Pekarek, who runs the business with his wife, Katie, said that schools provide an important market between August and November when farmers’ markets are slower. In Lincoln, especially, Husker football games can drastically lower farmers’ market attendance.
“We do the Haymarket in Lincoln,” Pekarek said. “Then about every other Saturday, Scott Frost has a little fiesta downtown, and that’s hard on our sales.”
Pekarek said tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are among the produce they sell to schools. However, cantaloupe and watermelon are the most popular. About half of their products are delivered straight to schools by Pekarek’s Produce themselves. The other half is delivered through Lone Tree Foods.
Pekarek advised any producer interested in selling their products to schools to be persistent in looking for districts who are supportive of locally sourced goods.
“Find the buyers that are believers,” he said. “If the head cook or the buyer or the director doesn’t think it’s gonna work, you’ll never overcome that obstacle.”
One of those believers is Tammy Yarmon.
Yarmon is the executive director of Nutrition Services for Omaha Public Schools. She said the district has been buying from local producers for about 20 years.
“It’s all about keeping the money spent in the community,” Yarmon said. “I’m real big on Nebraska purchasing products from Nebraska farmers.”
When buying from local producers, Yarmon said she looks at packaging, cleanliness, quality and consistency. Although local products can sometimes be more expensive, Yarmon said the district has declared a ‘geographical preference’ which allows it to budget slightly more for locally sourced products.
“When you look at a smaller grower, they don’t necessarily have the economies of scale that a larger grower might have,” Yarmon said.
Yarmon said seasonal growing conditions can affect how much produce is available and when. Rain or frost, for example, can delay produce deliveries.
“You have to have a backup plan in place,” Yarmon said.
According to Smith, using locally sourced products can also pose a challenge for school cafeteria staff. Less processed products mean more prep work – a problem that is compounded by labor shortages.
Despite the extra effort, Yarmon and Smith said the result is worth it.
“I remember when we first did broccoli crowns at one of the high schools years ago,” Yarmon said. “The kids loved it so much. The amount that we went through was double and triple because it tasted so much better.”