December 8, 2014
On December 8, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that eight states have been selected to participate in the Pilot Project for Procurement of Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables, a 2014 Farm Bill provision allowing pilot states to purchase more produce from local farmers for their school meal programs.
California, Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin were selected for the pilot, representing the Pacific Northwest, the West, Northeast, Midwest, and Southern regions of the country as mandated by the farm bill. As mentioned in an earlier blog post over the summer, in order to be considered for the 2014-2015 school year, State Distributing Agencies (SDAs) submitted applications by the September 30, 2014 deadline.
The eight states were selected based on prior farm-to-school program promotional efforts, the availability and variety of local produce growers, and the number of local educational agencies varying in both population and geographic distribution.
Pilot Project Details
The pilot project is a joint effort between the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and will allow schools in the participating states to use USDA food allocations to directly purchase unprocessed fruits and vegetables instead of going through the federal agency. Currently, about 20 percent of all food served in schools comes from USDA. School food programs can select from 180 foods, including produce, meats, dairy products, pasta, and more.
In the selected states, school food authorities (SFAs) or SDAs (acting on behalf of participating SFAs), will be permitted to competitively solicit a USDA-approved vendor using USDA NSLP entitlement funds for unprocessed fruits and vegetables. SDAs or SFAs will be able to use their pre-existing commercial distribution channels and relationships with farmers, produce wholesalers, and distributors, as well as apply geographic preference in procurement.
While the pilot project does not require school meal programs to purchase local fruits and vegetables, it will give more purchasing flexibility to school food programs, and, in turn, more sales opportunities for local producers and more healthy fruits and vegetables for students.
Next Steps and NSAC’s Role
AMS will work with the states to identify approved vendors—including farmers and food hubs—and ultimately publish a list of approved vendors online. Vendors will need to verify compliance with AMS food safety requirements, domestic origin, and food defense. SFAs or SDAs from Pilot Project States can then procure unprocessed fruits and vegetables from these vendors, up to the amount of USDA entitlement that the States set aside for the pilot project. SDAs must submit monthly reports to FNS and AMS summarizing delivery and pricing information from all USDA-approved vendors, who are then paid by AMS in accordance with the reports.
NSAC was a champion of two pilot project provisions for the 2014 Farm Bill, which were ultimately not adopted as introduced, though pieces were merged into the final farm bill provision for the pilots just announced. The provisions NSAC championed would have given more control to the States and to local schools and school districts by authorizing the use of dollars from two USDA food distribution programs for the purchases of foods (and not just unprocessed fruits and vegetables) from agricultural producers in their own communities. Additionally, schools with low annual commodity entitlement values (very small, mostly rural schools) would have been authorized to start making their own local food purchases, in whole or in part, provided this would yield reduced overall administrative costs.
While we would like to see the final provision do more to encourage procurement of a variety of foods (in addition to unprocessed fruits and vegetables) produced locally through school meal programs, the new pilot projects — along with last week’s Farm to School Grants announcement — are an encouraging sign of growing momentum and progress for the farm-to-school movement.
We will continue to follow the pilot project across the eight states and provide updates on its progress.
For more information on the Pilot Project for Procurement of Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables, visit the program’s website.