Marketing Michigan Products to Schools: A Step-By-Step Guide

The "Marketing Michigan Products to Schools: A Step-By-Step Guide" was developed with input from farmers like you, and its practical tools are designed to address lessons learned through real farm to school experiences. The guide may be downloaded in its entirety here, or view the steps below to determine your next step.

Advisory Committee:

Jane Bush
Farmer
AppleSchram Orchards
Adam Montri
Outreach Specialist
Student Organic Farm & Department of Horticulture
Michigan State University
 
Diane Conners
Senior Policy Specialist
Michigan Land Use Institute
Marla Moss
Child and Adult Care Food Program, Grant Coordination and School Support
Michigan Department of Education
 
Mike Gavin
Farmer
Gavin Orchards
Michaelle Rehmann
Farm to Food Service Program Director
Food System Economic Partnership
 
Jeanne Hausler
Marketing Specialist
Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Develop
Kevin Sarb
Consultant, School Nutrition and Training Programs
Michigan Department of Education
 
Betty Izumi
Assistant Professor
School of Community Health
Portland State University
Kable Thurlow
Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources
Michigan State University Extension

 

Special Thanks:

Many thanks to Dr. Mike Hamm and Dr. Susan Smalley for their continued support and detailed review of this guide. Special thanks to Vicki Morrone, David Conner, Kathryn Colasanti, Colleen Bess, Steve Anderson, Dru Montri, and Jasmine Angelini-Knoll for their assistance and valuable feedback.

Funding:

Funding for this guide was provided by Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Environmental Needs) at Michigan State University.

Marketing Michigan Products to Schools: A Step-By-Step Guide

Follow these steps to market your Michigan agricultural products to school food service for school meals programs, special events, and/or fundraisers. Communication, flexibility, and understanding risks and benefits are keys to success, and relationships are the heart of farm to school!

Preamble: Get Real About Farm to School
Step 1: Get Started
Step 2: Build Community Connections
Step 3: Prepare Marketing Packet and Bid Documents
Step 4: Develop Contract or Agreement with Schools
Step 5: Begin Selling Your Products to Local Schools
Appendices

Preamble: Get Real About Farm to School

The term “farm to school” applies to a variety of initiatives but centers around efforts to offer local foods in school cafeterias. Results from a 2004 Michigan Farm-to-School Survey showed that 73% of the food service directors who responded were interested in purchasing food directly from a local farmer. Preliminary results of a similar survey show a dramatic increase in the number of schools and school districts that have purchased foods directly from Michigan farmers and producers in the 2008-2009 school year. As of early 2010, about 60 established farm to school programs have been identified statewide but many more programs likely exist. More farmers with a wider variety of products available for more of the school year are needed to meet this growing demand!

Local purchasing programs offer a variety of benefits. Farm to school programs may:

  • offer an expanding market opportunity for farmers and a way to diversify markets and manage risk
  • keep dollars within Michigan communities
  • give school food service directors greater ability to specify their needs and a chance to have closer relationships with their food vendors and producers
  • provide school children with better access to local foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables
  • improve school children’s understanding of local foods and agriculture

To get real about farm to school, you must first get real about your motivation. School budgets are tight, and food service directors may have constraints that require certain operating procedures that can make local purchasing challenging. While marketing to schools will not often bring large profits, schools can provide a stable, steady market to build into your marketing portfolio. Developing relationships may take some time, patience, and flexibility, but school food service directors are often loyal, long-term customers if they find vendors with good service and quality products at competitive prices. Many farmers enjoy the feel-good nature of farm to school, but prices should still cover costs so that this can be a long-term, win-win opportunity.

The tools in this guide are geared toward school markets, but much of its information may be applied to other types of outreach and marketing, including other institutional markets such as colleges/universities, hospitals, and/or correctional facilities. The challenges and constraints that institutional food service programs face are often similar, but there are no one size fits all solutions or strategies for farm to institution programs. Programs vary depending upon the location, agricultural production and seasonal availability in the area, and the type, size, equipment, and delivery needs of a food service program. While the guide cannot give you all of the answers, it is designed to prepare you to access school markets and provides questions to ask and get answered as you embark on this new marketing venture.

Step 1: Get Started

Determine your interest and ability to market your farm products to schools, and compile information about your farm, products, and business practices before you talk with local schools about this market opportunity.
        Tool: Farmer Self-Assessment

Prepare a food safety program for your farm. Food safety is a priority for schools, consider getting a GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), GHP (Good Handling Practices) and/or other third-party audit, and/or complete a food safety self-audit to assure school customers that your products are safe.
        Tool: Addressing Food Safety

Consider additional insurance types depending upon your farm practices and needs. Schools typically require food vendors to have product liability insurance to provide coverage for any food safety issues that may arise with food products.
        Tool: Insurance Considerations

Keep good records! Know your costs of production in order to appropriately price your products. One good resource is Telfarm, a financial record keeping system available from Michigan State University Extension’s Farm Information Resources Management (FIRM) Team at http://www.canr.msu.edu/telfarm/. Become familiar with school food funding to understand how school food service directors purchase food, including local food. If you would like to learn more about School Food Programs and Regulations, see Appendix II.
        Tool: School Food Budget

Step 2: Build Community Connections

Find schools in your area, and start to build relationships with food service directors and school community members. Contact local school food service directors to tell them about your products. Meeting with a PTO or PTA is a good place to start if you would like to participate in school fundraisers.

Contact local distributors with whom you would be willing to work to see if they would carry your products, if you are interested in wider distribution of your products to schools. Many school food service directors appreciate the ease and familiarity of working with distributors.
        Tool: Michigan Distributors

Connect with state or local organizations to link with on-going farm to school projects and/or schools that are interested in initiating farm to school programs.
        Tool: Resources to link to farm to school programs and interested schools

Capitalize on your existing networks! Connect with other farmers in your area to see if you can collaborate with them on production, washing, packaging, storing, and/or delivering local products for school markets. The New North Florida Cooperative is one example of a successful network of farmers working together to supply produce to local schools. Learn about their innovative marketing strategy HERE

Step 3: Prepare Marketing Packet and Bid Documents

Develop marketing materials and a profile of your farm business to share with prospective school customers. Be sure to distribute business cards as well. Offer taste tests or a harvest basket of your products to school food service directors to assure them of the high quality of your products and/or introduce them to new products.

Ask questions. Contact prospective school customers during the bid process to get questions answered, determine their flexibility, and begin establishing a relationship. Ask them about products they currently use in school food service in order to match and market your products’ seasonal availability with typical school usage. Let them know if you have additional products that may be of interest, and if you are willing to expand or customize your production to meet their needs.
        Tool: School food service questionnaire

Prepare product availability and pricing forms to help market your products and respond to requests for quotes or bids from schools. Include seasonal availability and pricing for all varieties, sizes, and packs of products you grow and market.
        Tool: Pricing for school meals programs
        Tool: Completing product availability and pricing forms
        Tool: Sample product availability and pricing sheet
        Tool: Sample vendor questionnaire

Gather and include copies of documents pertaining to inspections, certifications, insurance, and/or food safety in your bid packet. If you can, provide contact information of other customers who would be willing to offer positive references.

Understand how your bid will be evaluated when you respond to schools’ requests for quotes or bids. Review typical criteria for evaluating and selecting bids, and describe how your products stack up. Determine which value-added services you can offer, like participating in school visits or school fundraisers, and include those services in the marketing materials and bids you submit to schools.
        Tool: Sample evaluation criteria for selecting vendors

Submit your bid to prospective customers.

Step 4: Develop Contract or Agreement with Schools

Invite new customers to tour your farm/business before you begin selling products to them, and ask for a tour of the schools’ food service facilities.

Meet face-to-face with school food service directors to determine your mutual needs prior to establishing an agreement or contract. Be sure to discuss an ordering schedule, delivery and packaging requirements, and payment terms. Co-write agreements or contracts with your new school customers. Be sure to discuss the best methods for maintaining contact (phone, email, or fax) and sharing news about new products or services. You can use a sample invoice in Appendix III as a template for invoicing school customers.

Step 5: Begin Selling Your Products to Local Schools

Stay in regular touch with school customers to ensure customer satisfaction, maintain a good professional relationship, and notify them of new products or services.

Be proactive, and keep the value-added services coming! Offer to visit school classrooms and cafeterias to do educational programs and/or taste tests with students. Offer to host school field trips at your farm. Suggest products that may be particularly suitable to school fundraisers. Develop clear plans for any of these opportunities before discussing them with school customers.

Appendices

I: “Buying Local – Approved Food Sources for Food Establishments” from Michigan Department of Agriculture
II: School Food Programs and Regulations
III: Sample Invoice