Benefits and Obstacles to Purchasing
From Local Growers and Producers
Oftentimes, those who are responsible for purchasing food
for school foodservice programs have a variety of vendors from whom they choose
to purchase. One buying option that is receiving increased support from the
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the purchase of foods from local growers
(those who grow food items on their farm and sell directly to consumers) and
producers (those who produce a food item, such as pasta or ground beef, from
locally grown or raised foods).
Data for this study were collected from individuals responsible
for managing school foodservice operations in four Midwestern states to determine
current purchasing practices and identify benefits and obstacles to purchasing
food from local growers or producers. Results indicated that approximately one-third
of the managers had purchased from local growers or producers. Primary benefits
cited were: good public relations; aiding the local economy; ability to purchase
smaller quantities and fresher food; knowing product sources; and food safety.
The year-round availability of food items, as well as the ability to obtain
an adequate food supply and reliable food quantity, were perceived as the greatest
School foodservice directors are responsible
for effective management of the financial resources for their operation. Purchasing
food for the program is a major use of these financial resources. Sneed and
White (1993) reported that competencies related to food purchasing were important
components of the job of school foodservice manager. Their results indicated
that school foodservice managers performed activities related to ordering food
on a weekly basis.
A food-buying option that is receiving increased emphasis is
the purchase of food items from local growers and producers. This effort has
received strong support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as evidenced
by such activities as the Small Farms/School Meals Initiative. This Initiative
encourages local growers to sell food products to schools and urges schools
to buy food from local growers. Goals of the effort are to improve the economic
stability of small farmers and the long-term health of school children (USDA,
USDA currently estimates that almost 1.9 million farms in the
United States, or 94 percent of all farms, are small or limited-resource farms
that provide an average net income of less than $25,000. The potential of these
farms to generate income has been restricted in part by depressed prices for
many bulk agricultural commodities and recent reductions in traditional crop
subsidies (Tropp & Olowolayemo, 2000).
Development of new markets for agricultural producers is one
strategy to increase profitability and ensure survival of small- to medium-size
farm operations (Lucht, 1999). Direct-farm marketing is an effort to shorten
the chain of intermediaries, such as wholesalers and brokers, between producers
and consumers. Advocates of direct-farm marketing argue that the food is fresher
and of higher quality, costs less with higher returns to the grower or producer,
and helps the local economy since revenue is kept within the geographic area
(Cottingham, Hovland, Lenon, Roper, & Techtmann, 2000). The increase in
the number of farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture groups indicates
that these direct marketing efforts are being successful in connecting food
growers and producers with consumers at retail levels (Gilman, 1999).
Evidence of successful direct marketing to local hotel, restaurant
and institutional (HRI) markets is less clear. The HRI market is complex, with
several sectors within the industry, such as quick-service to up-scale restaurants
and onsite foodservice in healthcare, schools, and business. Factors that influence
vendor selection include:
- number of patrons served;
- geographic location;
- purchasing and payment policies;
- form of packaging, convenience; and
- compliance with state and federal government regulations for
Although close to one-half of the American food dollar is spent
on food prepared away from home (National Restaurant Association, 2000), perceptions
of HRI food buyers in any segment of the industry with regard to local food
sourcing have not been examined in empirical studies. What has been reported
in the literature about use of local purchasing by HRI operations, however,
has focused on specific geographic locations, foods, or establishments and has
primarily represented the perspective of the grower.
A review of successful farm to school connections was featured
in the last issue of The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management
(Strohbehn & Gregoire, 2001). The Community Food Security Coalition's publication,
Healthy Farms, Healthy Kids (Azuma & Fisher, 2001), argued the need
for improved nutritional offerings in school meal programs, and described several
school district efforts to offer salad bar meals prepared from locally grown
produce. Both of these publications identify several farm-to-school programs
in many states, yet there is no published research compiling types of food items,
cost/benefit, or other important foodservice operational information. Findings
from case studies are helpful in understanding particular benefits and obstacles
to purchasing foods from local sources; however, no empirical evidence to date
has identified perceptions held by school foodservice buyers.
This article presents findings from a questionnaire
that was sent to school foodservice directors, which was designed to identify
benefits and obstacles to purchasing foods from local growers (those who grow
food items on their farm and sell directly to consumers) and producers (those
who produce a food item, such as pasta or ground beef, from locally grown or
raised foods). Information presented in this article will assist in the development
of strategies and procedures to increase purchases of locally grown and produced
In Fall 1999 and Spring 2000, semi-structured interviews were
conducted with individuals responsible for foodservice operations in seven school
districts. School districts were public and private, varied in size from less
than 400 students to greater than 10,000 students, and were located in communities
ranging in size from 800 to 200,000 citizens. Some of the interviewees were full-time
foodservice administrators, while others had food production and administrative
responsibilities. Information gathered in the interviews was used to develop a
questionnaire for this research study.
The questionnaire consisted of five sections. In
Section 1, respondents were asked to rate the degree of benefit for each of
12 factors related to purchasing foods locally using a 5-point Likert-type scale
(1=No benefit to 5=Strong benefit). In Section 2, a list of 16 possible obstacles
was presented, and respondents were asked to rate the degree to which each item
presented an obstacle to purchasing foods locally (1=No obstacle to 5=High obstacle).
Information about current purchasing practices was requested in Section 3. Demographic
information about the person purchasing the food, the school district, and the
community was requested in Section 4. In Section 5, usage and frequency of delivery
information were requested for several specific food items that potentially
could be purchased locally. (These data were collected to assist with determining
a potential market for local growers and producers and will not be discussed
in this article.)
Five school foodservice directors
in central Iowa were asked to complete the questionnaire and evaluate it for
content validity, clarity of items, and understandability of directions. No
statistical testing of data collected in this review phase was done. The directors
did not recommend any changes to the questionnaire.
The sample for the study included
individuals responsible for the school foodservice operation from four Midwestern
states: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota (N=1,244). These states were selected
because a large portion of their economy is from agriculture and related businesses
and the researchers were most interested in results from this region of the
country. Mailing labels for all school districts in Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota
were purchased from a database company. The labels were addressed to "Foodservice
Director," and included the school district's name and address. Mailing
labels for a random sample of school districts in Iowa were obtained from the
Iowa Bureau of Food and Nutrition and included the name of the individual identified
in their records as responsible for the foodservice operation in that district.
Questionnaires were mailed
in September 2000 with a request for participation and a postage-paid, self-addressed,
return envelope. Follow-up postcards were sent to non-respondents in October.
When requested, a second survey and postage-paid, self-addressed, return envelope
SPSS (version 9.0, 2000) was
used for all data analyses. Frequencies, means, and standard deviations were
calculated. Coefficient alpha was calculated to determine a reliability estimate
for the benefits and obstacles items. Analysis of variance was used to compare
tendency toward local purchasing based on size of community. Analysis of variance
also was used to compare mean ratings of perceived benefits and obstacles based
on size of the community.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
A 19 percent response rate was achieved, with 237 questionnaires
returned. Respondents' school foodservice operations were located in communities
ranging in size from less than 1,000 people to greater than 10,000 inhabitants;
51% were in communities of 1,000-10,000 people. Most respondents were working
in school foodservice operations in which 100-500 meals were served for breakfast
(41.8%) and 500 or more meals were served for lunch (56.1%).
Information about the purchasing practices in these school foodservice
operations is included in Table 1. Results indicated
that the director (42.8%) or kitchen manager (33.8%) was the person who most
often purchased the food. Many of the food buyers (54.3%) had been purchasing
food for more than 10 years. Nearly half (45.8%) of the school foodservice operations
in this study used five or more vendors for their food purchases. Food orders
were most commonly placed either in person with a sales representative who came
to the school foodservice operation (88.6%) or by telephone (51.9%). Fax machines
(14.8%) and computers (11.8%) were not used very often. Prime vendors (one vendor
with whom the majority of food items are purchased each week) were used in many
(67.1%) of the school foodservice operations, as were purchasing cooperatives
(several schools organized as one purchasing entity to increase volume purchased
and obtain lower pricing) (45.9%).
Of particular interest was whether purchase of locally grown
and/or produced items was occurring in school foodservice operations. Approximately
one third (34.8%) of participants in this study indicated that they had purchased
food products from local growers and/or producers. Fresh produce items were
the products most commonly purchased locally.
Analysis of variance was used to examine whether the tendency
to purchase locally grown and produced food differed based on the size of community
in which the school foodservice operation was located. No significant differences
Benefits to Purchasing Locally Grown/Produced Foods
Participants were asked to rate 12 potential benefits
to purchasing locally grown or produced foods for their school foodservice operation.
Results are shown in Table 2. Good public relations
and aiding the local economy received the highest ratings, which indicated that
both were perceived as strong benefits that resulted from purchasing locally.
The ability to purchase smaller quantities and fresher food, knowing the product
sources, and food safety also were perceived as benefits. The coefficient alpha
reliability estimate for the benefits items was 0.91.
These findings are consistent with previously published articles.
Azuma and Fisher (2001) reported that a primary reason for local purchasing
was to support the local economy and family farms. Jolly (1999), in his presentation
at the USDA agricultural outlook forum, shared data collected in several states
that showed quality of food products, support of local farmers, and food safety
concerns as primary reasons consumers purchased locally grown food products.
Analysis of variance was used to compare the mean ratings based
on the size of the community in which the school foodservice operation was located.
Participants from school foodservice operations in communities of less than
1,000 people rated the following three items as "significantly stronger
benefits": ability to purchase smaller quantities of food; availability
of fresher food; and availability of safer food. These results may reflect a
stronger link with agriculture in the more rural communities in the Midwest.
Obstacles to Purchasing Locally Grown/Produced Foods
Participants also were asked to rate 16 potential
obstacles to purchasing locally grown and produced foods for their school foodservice
operation. Results are shown in Table 3. The lack
of availability of foods year-round and the ability to obtain an adequate food
supply and quantity were perceived as the greatest obstacles. Although no items
listed on the questionnaire were rated as being "High Obstacles" (i.e.
mean > 4.0 on 5.0 scale), all were perceived as being at least somewhat of
an obstacle to local purchasing (means ranged from 2.5 to 3.9). The coefficient
alpha reliability estimate for the obstacles items was 0.92. No differences
in ratings were found based on the size of the community.
These results are consistent with those reported by others. An
Iowa State University Extension publication (Gregoire et al., 2000) suggested
that seasonality and availability of products and reliability of volume to meet
needs of schools as two primary concerns of school foodservice directors related
to purchasing from local growers and producers. Cottingham, Hovland, Lenon,
Roper, and Techtmann (2000) stressed the importance of being able to provide
a dependable supply of quality product if local growers wanted to sell to foodservice
Several limitations are important to recognize when reviewing
findings from this study. Most importantly, only 19% of those who were sent
a questionnaire chose to complete and return it. Such a limited response reduces
the ability to generalize the data. Reasons for such a low response rate are
not known. Not having the specific name of the current foodservice director
and having to send the questionnaire to a more generic addressee might have
impacted the response rate. Requesting information on quantity of food purchases
also could have been perceived to be too time consuming for participants to
Another limitation of the study is the use of a sample from only
four Midwestern states. Such a sample provided valuable information about perceptions
in this region; however, these perceptions may not be representative of other
regions in the country.
Data collected in this study reflect perceptions held by the
persons completing the questionnaires about the benefits and obstacles to local
purchase. Future studies are needed to examine issues such as actual costs involved
with purchasing locally grown or produced foods, safety of the local food supply,
CONCLUSIONS AND APPLICATION
According to Tropp and Olowolayemo (2000), linking local growers
and producers and school foodservice programs offers concrete benefits to everyone
involved in the school foodservice program:
- schoolchildren may have access to a greater volume and variety
of fresh fruits and vegetables;
- local school foodservice directors can obtain fresher products
packed to better meet their specifications without having to pay for long-distance
transportation and handling costs; and
- local growers gain an additional, and generally stable, source
of farm-based income.
Results of this study suggest that those responsible for school
foodservice operations, and who participated in this study, believe there are
benefits to be gained by purchasing from local growers and producers. Such benefits
include enhanced public relations, as well as providing economic support for
USDA programs, such as Team Nutrition and the Small Farms/School
Meals Initiative, provide innovative ways to help better connect schools with
their communities and enhance the quality of meals served in school foodservice.
Those purchasing food for school foodservice operations need to be familiar
with state and local regulations related to local purchasing.
Several potential obstacles to local purchasing were identified
in this study. However, school foodservice buyers could work with their local
growers and producers to help overcome these potential obstacles. Talking with
growers to gain an understanding of product availability and growing season
will help foodservice buyers determine when purchasing locally grown products
is feasible. Encouraging local growers and producers to combine their efforts
to allow school foodservice ordering and payment to occur through one representative
would reduce some current obstacles to local purchasing.
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Mary B. Gregoire is professor and chair, Department
of Apparel, Educational Studies, and Hospitality Management, Iowa State University,
Ames, IA. Catherine Strohbehn is adjunct assistant professor, Hotel, Restaurant,
and Institution Management Program, Iowa State University, Ames, IA.