Farm to school sales decline without incentives

COURTESY OF IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY EXTENSION AND OUTREACH
In 2020, seven Iowa food hubs sold food to 57 schools, colleges and early care sites. Less than half, or 26, of those sites returned in 2021 to purchase local food from a food hub.

AMES, Iowa — Farm to school sales from Iowa food hubs were cut in half in 2021, following the loss of state and federal funding.

In 2020, seven food hubs sold food to 57 schools, compared to 26 schools, colleges and early-care sites in 2021, according to summary report released by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The “Impacts of the Local Produce and Protein Program report,” released by the Iowa Food Hub Managers Working Group and ISU Extension and Outreach, reported that 42 schools received funds from the program in 2020, while only 15 of those sites purchased from food hubs in 2021.

In August 2020, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship announced Local Produce and Protein Program grants were available to fruit and vegetable farmers, schools and food hubs. 

“The Local Produce and Protein Program was funded with emergency pandemic funds,” said Teresa Wiemerslage, field specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach’s Farm, Food and Enterprise Development program. “The funding was not available this year for schools, and food hubs saw a correlating decrease in participation and sales.”

The Iowa Food Hub Managers Working Group is a collaboration of 10 food hubs in Iowa. The group has been working together to coordinate local food aggregation and delivery since 2015. 

Food hubs contributed to making the Local Produce and Protein Program a success. Of the $225,000 reimbursed to schools for local food purchases from March to December 2020, 51% was spent at food hubs and 51% (41 of 80) of grantees were served by food hubs. 

With funds not available in 2021, most schools purchased local foods with no outside financial incentives. Schools with established relationships with farmers and food hubs were most likely to continue serving Iowa foods in their cafeterias. 

The full supplemental report is available online.

Results

Down by half. In 2020, seven food hubs sold food to 57 schools, colleges and early care sites. Five of those sites purchased from more than one food hub. Less than half (26) of those sites returned in 2021 to purchase local food from a food hub.

Iowa Local Food Day continues to motivate. Every school purchasing from hubs in 2021 also signed up for Iowa Local Food Day, with one exception. Iowa Local Food Day was launched in 2018 to bring together all sectors of farm to school to celebrate Iowa-grown food and is celebrated the second Wednesday of October. 

Fewer new customers. Food hubs reported eight new customers in 2021 compared to 33 new customers in 2020. The decrease is attributed to the lack of financial incentive to participate because all the new food hub school customers in 2020 were program grantees. 

Seven of those customers participated in Iowa Local Food Day and used food hubs to source some of their local product. It should be noted that some of the customers were food hub customers prior to 2020. Challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected their participation in 2020. 

Existing customers were primary purchasers. Sixty-two percent of the farm to school customers in 2021 were classified as “existing customers” — food hub customers of at least three years. Five of the customers who were new in 2020 purchased from the food hub again in 2021.

The 2020 Local Produce and Protein Program Impact Report showed that after several seasons of purchases from a food hub, schools can make larger and more frequent local food purchases. 

Financial incentives can help schools transition from a “new” customer to an “existing” customer.  This phenomenon was also observed in 2021 when looking at the sales numbers in September and October from two food hubs. 

A Tale of Two Hubs

North Iowa Fresh is based in north central Iowa and specializes in direct-to-consumer sales and a small amount of wholesale. In 2020, six schools and three early childhood sites purchased $25,070 of local food from the North Iowa Fresh food hub.

All of the sites received a program grant and were considered new hub customers. In 2021, only one of those sites purchased local food from the hub. North Iowa Fresh’s farm to school sales in September and October were less than $1,000.

Compare that experience with Iowa Food Hub, based in Decorah. Iowa Food Hub specializes in farm to school and they have four schools that they consider “anchor buyers” — buyers who consistently purchase local food every week.

In 2020, 12 K-12 schools purchased local food from IFH in September and October valued at $28,500. Four of those schools were new customers. In 2021, eight K-12 schools purchased $25,400. None of the new customers in 2020 — who all received program grants — returned to the hub for farm to school purchases. Seven of the existing school customers maintained or increased their farm to school purchases in 2021.

The difference between the hubs’ experiences can be boiled down to technical assistance and time to develop their programs. Iowa Food Hub and their partners have been working with some of their school customers for eight years and their relationship has matured. In the early years, financial incentives were used as well as technical assistance for menu planning, staff training and procurement planning. In the meantime, the food hub continued to seek out more farms and added more products to their availability list. As the schools’ capacity to use and serve local food grew, so did their purchases.

Recommendations

The 2020 Impact Report listed several recommendations to increase the capacity of Iowa food hubs to support local food procurement in Iowa schools.

  • Explore ways to continue the LPPP or a similar grant program to help more early childhood centers, K-12 schools and colleges/universities get started with local food procurement.
  • Time future incentives so that schools, farms and food hubs can plan menus and local purchases in advance, and for purchasing periods to encompass the peak of harvest season to help schools more readily access volume and variety of local foods, if possible.
  • Support programs like the Farm to School Local Food Procurement Coaches who are local food system experts that have been trained to help farm to school teams develop local food procurement plans. More information is available online.
  • Invest in aggregation and distribution infrastructure at Iowa food hubs and key geographic locations to support access to markets for farmers.
  • Facilitate relationships between schools and food hubs, so food hubs can help overcome the challenges of locating product and arranging delivery.