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Growers get educated on selling produce to schools

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Jeremy Hayne may have run a market garden farm for 42 years, but he is still looking for new markets.

He grows fresh vegetables, fruit, honey, and eggs on 15 acres and sells them at the on-site farm stand at Mayneland Farm in Naperville, about 30 miles southwest of Chicago.

He started selling produce in 1976, and has specialized in growing in high tunnels, heated by the sun, since 1996 and said he likes the idea of ​​local kids eating his healthy food. He hasn’t had much luck getting his food in schools.

Hayne stopped in his tracks at the Illinois Food, Farmers Market and Specialty Crop Conference exhibits when he saw a display about farmers selling foods to schools.

Diane Chapeta, program manager for Illinois Farm To School at Seven Generations Ahead, told him there are more opportunities for market gardeners today with new laws which allow school districts to set new criteria when bidding for vendors.

School districts can now stipulate they want to give locally grown foods a high priority. In the past, the lowest bidder always won.

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“It’s not all about price anymore,” said Chapeta, who works for a nonprofit helping farmers get connected with schools. “We have large school districts rewriting their food policies.”

Seven Generations can also help farmers create business plans to include schools in their marketing approach.

However, she said the Naperville school district near Hayne uses Aramark Food Service, so it would be harder for him to get a spot for school lunches. But there are other opportunities, she told Hayne, including being part of the Summer Feed and Garden programs. It would be a matter of talking to the school district, she said.

Several workshops at the conference focused on Farm-to-School training for growers.

Chapeta was one of the presenters who helped farmers identify the best market channels to sell to schools based on their capacity and goals.

Another workshop helped farmers learn if selling to schools is right for them with the help of “whole-farm planning decision making.” They were given tools to help them determine if school price points works for the products they grow.

Growers also had a chance to tell the Illinois Farm to School Coalition what barriers they see in selling to schools — what does and doesn’t work — and make recommendations for policy, program logistics and infrastructure improvements to make Farm to School more successful and accessible in Illinois.

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