Geographic Preference and Improving Local Food Sourcing

A VA farmer brings apples in to a local school. Credit: USDA

A VA farmer brings apples in to a local school. Credit: USDA

When schools purchase local foods for school meals and snacks, they’re not only supporting farmers, ranchers, fishers and other food and agriculture businesses (like processors and distributors), generating economic activity in local communities, but also stocking up on ingredients needed to help nourish millions of children around the country. Local procurement is one of several farm to school activities, including school gardens and lessons in food, agriculture, and nutrition, that are promoted by the successful USDA Farm to School Grant Program. The subject of the Farm to School Act of 2015 currently being reviewed by Congress for the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization, the grant program has helped 221 projects in 49 states, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands develop, improve, or expand farm to school activities over the past 3 years.

According to a literature review entitled the Benefits of Farm to School by the National Farm to School Network, the benefits of local procurement for farmers and community economic development include:

  • Increased purchases from local sources as farm to school programming matures, with potential local sourcing of up to 50 percent of all produce purchases in season;
  • An average 5 percent increase in income from farm to school sales for individual farmers.
  • Increase in market diversification;
  • Establishment of grower collaboratives or cooperatives to supply institutional markets; and
  • Creation and maintenance of jobs, so that for every job created by school districts purchasing local foods, additional economic activity is generated that creates another 1.67 jobs.

Background in Brief

Section 4303 of the 2002 Farm Bill amended the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act to encourage institutions participating in child nutrition programs to purchase “locally produced foods for school meal programs, to the maximum extent practicable and appropriate.”

The definition of local is determined by the school district and thus varies quite a bit depending on geography. Local foods may include fruits, vegetables, beans, grains and flour, meat, poultry, fish, condiments, herbs, eggs, processed products, and dairy.

There are several ways for schools to source local products for federal school meal programs, including:

Geographic Preference and Product Specification

The 2008 Farm Bill amended the National School Lunch Act to allow schools and other eligible institutions receiving funds through the Child Nutrition Programs to apply an optional geographic preference for the procurement of unprocessed locally grown or locally raised agricultural products.

While using geographic preference is not the only option for local food procurement, it can be a powerful tool and is particularly useful in formal solicitations where respondents are ranked and scored. There are no federal requirements as to how to apply geographic preference or how much preference to give to local products. Schools may give extra points or price preference under geographic preference to vendors submitting bids that meet their definition of local. However, the use of geographic preference must not restrict free and open competition and the selection criteria must be clearly described in all solicitation materials.

For examples of the application of geographic preference, see the “USDA Fact Sheet: Geographic Preference – What It Is and How to Use It.”

Another option to assist with local procurement is the addition of purchase specifications that are likely to be met by local products, such as:

  • harvested within 24 to 48 hours of delivery;
  • delivered directly to school sites;
  • particular varieties or species that are local;

However, “local” may not be used as a specification. So, while it is not acceptable to require that vendors be located within 100 miles of the school, it is acceptable to require products be harvested within 48 hours of delivery.

The Issue

Despite the allowance for geographic preference, perceived conflicts in the guidance to carry out these provisions have produced confusion and non-compliance in procuring locally produced food products among schools. While some USDA guidance appears to allow solicitations specifically for local items, other guidance appears to specifically prohibit such solicitations.

Without clarity on the issue, schools struggle to understand how to properly apply the guidance – hesitating to implement geographic preference or incorrectly applying it. Moreover, while geographic preference works well in some instances, it is not as simple to administer as a straightforward product specification.

The Solution

In order to provide clarity and help schools more effectively procure product from local producers, NSAC proposes expanding the existing local procurement (2002 Farm Bill) and geographic preference language (2008 Farm Bill) in the 2015 Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization bill to specifically allow local as a product specification for school food, provided competitive bidding is maintained.

If this change were adopted in the 2015 Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, schools would have two options available: (1) the existing geographic preference option, through which they can give extra points to vendors using locally procured product but cannot limit bidding to local, and (2) a new local product specification option through which they could specify local and then make the award to the lowest bidder who can meet that product specification. Both are viable options in different situations. The additional of local product specification would provide more flexibility for school districts.

DoD Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program

The Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (DoD Fresh) allows schools to use their USDA Foods entitlement dollars to buy fresh produce. Started in the mid-1990s as a pilot program to allow schools in 8 states to receive deliveries from the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) as the Agency made delivers to military installations and other sites, DoD Fresh provides administrative efficiency for schools and greater purchasing power and funding for the DLA. Other benefits for schools from the program include a greater variety of America-grown produce, including pre-cuts and locally grown, consistent deliveries, emphasis on high quality, and an easy-to-use ordering website with funds tracking.

The majority of schools place orders via a web-based system (the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Order/Receipt System or FFAVORS) that tracks schools’ entitlement fund balances and total order costs. DoD manages vendor payment and reconciliation. In some cases, schools order through the state (who, in turn order through DoD Fresh). DoD Fresh allocations may be changed throughout the year and USDA does not impose a cap on the amount of entitlement dollars used by states through this program.  However, some states impose a cap on the amount of entitlement districts can allocate to DoD Fresh.

Produce valued at $3.2 million was delivered to schools during the pilot year. Due to the favorable response from States participating in the pilot, the program was opened up to all States. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (2002 Farm Bill) required that at least $50 million each year be used for produce purchases for schools under the DoD Fresh Program. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (2008 Farm Bill) continued to fund the DoD Fresh Program at the 2002 Farm Bill levels and allowed for the use of geographic preference. By FY 2010, spending had reached $66 million. As of 2013, schools in 46 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam participate in the program, with more than $100 million in purchases per year.

About 15 to 20 percent of the produce DoD provides to schools is currently considered local, which are marked with a local tag in the FFAVORS catalog, which is the web-based Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Order/Receipt System is the ordering mechanism for the DoD Fresh program.

The Issue 

Under the authorizing language from the 2002 Farm Bill (as amended under the 2008 Farm Bill), DoD Fresh is currently limited to fresh produce, thus prohibiting schools from obtaining products from vendors that are even minimally processed (such as flash frozen or dried products). This restriction makes it difficult for schools to have local produce available year round, since minimal processing such as freezing and drying help extend product life, which is especially important to enable schools to stock up on the bounty of summer products to be used in the lean winter months, when produce is harder to come by.

The Solution 

In order to correct this deficiency in the DoD Fresh Program, NSAC proposes the following simple fix: to change the term “fresh” to “unprocessed,” thus allowing for minimal processing, such a flash freezing and drying for produce.  Under USDA regulations governing geographic preference for school food, the definition of unprocessed allows foods to undergo minimal processing, such as chopping, freezing, and drying.

USDA Resources for More Information