Many growers have children in school and have been frustrated that their taxes have been paying for apples from competitors for school lunch programs.

Many growers have children in school and have been frustrated that their taxes have been paying for apples from competitors for school lunch programs.

The “buy local” movement got a shot in the arm this spring when the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented a new rule allowing some buyers—especially schools—to specify local foods when seeking bids. They can even pay a premium for local foods—and still qualify for free food or federal reimbursement under the School Lunch Program and other feeding programs.

Previously, buyers who procured food through big distributors were unable to state a geographic preference when letting bids.

The New York Apple Association picked up the news and issued a press release that was widely published in June across the state, where there has been frustration about not being able to specify local apples. The Michigan Apple Committee has been addressing the same question: Why are our kids eating Washington apples when we grow enough and then some?

“Kids now have the opportunity to have fresh, crunchy, local New York apples in their school lunches instead of apples that are 3,000 miles old,” said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, in the press release.

“Many of our farmers have kids in the local school systems but have been unable to get those schools to buy their apples,” he said. “This has frustrated our growers for years, especially when their school taxes end up buying apples from competitors.”

The change was mandated in the 2008 Farm Bill, but it took USDA two and a half years to write the rule, which was published this spring.

While apples have been the big topic in New York and Michigan, the rule covers all unprocessed or minimally processed fruits and vegetables. It applies to purchasing institutions supplying child nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and Summer Food Service ­Program.

It does not apply to purchases made by the Department of Agriculture, according to the Federal Register. When the USDA makes commodity purchases, as it often does when crops are large, it cannot state a geographic preference.

Impact not clear

It is not clear how much impact the rule will have. Even before the new rule, schools had the option of buying local produce direct from producers, but most school districts procure food from distributors that are able to deliver a mixed truckload of all kinds of foods.

David McClurg, vice president for marketing for the New York Apple Association, said some schools had already learned ways to step around the old rule against specifying origin. For example, in New York, school foodservice directors found they could specify a variety, like McIntosh or Empire, and they would virtually be assured the school would get a New York apple.

Now, however, they can get New York Red Delicious or Honeycrisp by specifying that it be locally produced.

Buying locally

Jim Liebow, foodservice director for the Brockport School District in Brockport, New York, said his school has had a “buy local” program for many years and has solved many of the problems that go with it.

All its apples are bought from one local orchard, for example. The school is also located in a large production area for other fruits, and vegetables like cabbage, potatoes, and onions. Liebow works with an “established safe delivery person,” who takes orders from the school each week and collects directly from local producers the items on the order sheet.

“We write one check to him,” Liebow said. “It can be hard to buy from local farmers since it means so many more vendors to deal with and write checks to. We buy a lot of local foods—apples, milk, honey, potatoes, cabbage, onions, and other vegetables.”

Produce houses in New York have tried to mesh with the Pride of New York program, which encourages purchase of foods produced in the state, Liebow said. These produce houses usually provide information on their price lists telling the area of origin of items of produce, which helps those wanting to buy local to do so when ordering.

Brockport is a K-12 school district with 4,000 students and a sizeable “from scratch” cooking program emphasizing healthy foods. “We sold all our deep fryers two years ago,” Liebow said. “We do a lot of steamed vegetables, like green beans and broccoli, and like to work with freshly picked vegetables if we can. With apples, we try to give students a mix of varieties, using fresh-picked apples in the fall and, of course, stored apples later. We order 25 to 30 cases of apples a week.”

Impact in West

Western apple shippers aren’t panicking over the new rule.

“I don’t see a big impact,” said Bob Mast at Columbia Marketing International in Wenatchee, Washington. There are other pressures that are worrisome—the high shipping costs and high fuel prices. But he recognizes that eastern growers—and their marketing associations—have been putting more pressure on distributors and institutional buyers to enhance their local buying ­programs.

Much of the eastern crop is sold direct from the orchards during the production season, and western apple shippers rely on sales of stored apples after the production season is over, he said. The ruling could entice more eastern producers to store more apples for winter sale.

Mac Riggan at Chelan Fresh Marketing in Chelan, Washington, expected “a little impact,” but, he noted, “there’s a lot of logistics behind this. Inefficient organizations do not last long in the produce business. They need to be able to deliver products consistently and year around. That’s why we have the food distribution system we have.”

Colleen Matts, the Farm to School marketing specialist with the Sustainable Food Systems Group at Michigan State University, agrees that much of the change has already taken place. The nongovernmental Farm to School program was started in 1996 to help school districts wanting to support their local economies while improving students’ health, and they found ways to buy directly or to carefully write bids and specifications. This year, almost 10,000 schools and 2,255 school districts are involved to some degree in Farm to School.

The rule opens new opportunities for the creation of infrastructure, such as local distribution systems, that can make procurement easier, Matts said.