Farm-to-School initiatives in Illinois struggle– here’s why

East Central Illinois farmer Traci Barkley wants to get her fresh produce into the neighboring school just two blocks from her farm, but the current Illinois school food system favors big business and low prices over fresh produce from local farmers.

Read her story and let us know if your farm or school also experiences these roadblocks.

Traci Barkley has been overseeing the daily operations at Sola Gratia Farm for the past eight years. Situated on the campus of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana, Sola Gratia sprawls across 15 acres in the heart of the city, and just blocks from a local elementary school. 

Last year, Traci began working with the Urbana School District, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and a cohort of community stakeholders to figure out how to improve school lunch for kids in her community. 

We know that in Urbana, over half of the students in our school districts qualify for free or reduced lunch. For many kids, they are getting their best, and sometimes their only meal, at school. When we think about where our farm can have the most impact — it’s by getting healthy food into schools.”– Traci Barkley, Sola Gratia Farm

Together they invested in school gardens and started plans to integrate nutrition education into the school curriculum, but when it came to changing the lunch menu to include local ingredients, they ran into major policy roadblocks right away.

First, like many school districts across Illinois, the Urbana School District does not have staff to prepare their lunches; instead they contract a food service agency to prepare the food for them. The food service agency takes care of purchasing the ingredients, preparing the meals, and serving them to students. 

To contract a food service agency, the school is required to put out a bid for the job, and the school is legally required to choose the food service agency that provides the lowest price bid. 

Schools cannot select a food service agency based on the quality of food they provide, their service, the use of local ingredients, or any other factors. By state law, they must choose the lowest price bid– which means fresh, locally raised food is not on the menu. 

Even if a food service agency wanted to use Traci’s fresh produce, the agency’s kitchen staff typically do not prepare scratch-made meals. Instead they prepare heat-and-serve meals. The contracts are so tight there isn’t funding for training or hiring more skilled cooks. 

The ‘lowest price bid requirement’ not only hamstrings schools, who end up with lower quality and service, but it hamstrings food service agencies from spending more money on fresher ingredients or training staff on scratch cooking techniques,” Traci said.

Illinois and New York are the only two states in the nation with this antiquated requirement. 

The lowest price bid requirement isn’t the only thing working against farmers and schools. There are also barriers with seasonality, aggregating and distributing products, and meeting food safety certification fees.  For the school, increased cost, lack of staff training on scratch cooking, and a lack of distributors that source from local farms remain serious problems.

Neighboring Midwest states have implemented a number of solutions to support farm-to-school, including: 

  • Removing the lowest price bid barrier
  • Funding incentive programs to reimburse schools a small amount for sourcing local ingredients
  • Funding farm-to-school grant programs to help schools train staff, renovate kitchens, and incorporate farm-to-school curriculums
  • Directing state Depts. of Ag to create farm-to-school programs to help connect farms and schools and provide value chain coordination
  • Directing state Depts. of Ag to provide technical assistance to farms and food business projects that focus on aggregating and distributing food from local farms so that farmers can work together to meet the supply needs of schools. 

Are you an Illinois farmer that wants to sell to schools? Or an Illinois school district employee that wants to see more farm-to-school initiatives in your school? Let us know! We want to work with you on solutions.

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It’s never been more important for kids to get healthy food for healthy immune systems, for schools to support local farms and grow their local economies, and for communities to come together to build resilience and take action. 

In a Nutshell 

The problem:

There is a lack of state support for farm-to-school initiatives in Illinois, and in some cases, regulations outright work against these initiatives, such as Illinois’ “lowest price bid” requirement, which prevents schools from improving their school lunches and sourcing fresh, local ingredients from area farms. 

The solution:

The state should look at legislation and programming implemented by neighboring states to support farm-to-school initiatives– including updating their bidding process to allow school districts to prioritize nutrition, service, local sourcing, and other factors just like 48 other states in the nation. 

Are you an Illinois farmer that wants to sell to schools? Or an Illinois school district employee that wants to see more farm-to-school initiatives in your school? Let us know! We want to work with you on solutions.