Closer Is Better: The Benefits of Local Sourcing for Schools

Chef Michael Morris
About the author : Chef Michael Morris

Director of Operational Excellence

Published on : 11/8/23
  • The farm-to-table movement has captured our imagination — and palates — for many years now, and it’s only natural that we give schoolchildren an early appreciation for fresh, healthy and local foods, while building a connection to their communities through the food we serve in the lunchroom. At Sodexo, we work closely with produce suppliers who work with local farms to supply the food that go to our school districts. From there, we create a core menu and a Fresh Picks menu that highlights seasonality and freshness. 

    By working with our supply chain, we can support more local and regional farms and do it on a larger scale. Some states have their own regulations as to what can be constituted “local.” In California, for example, where the climate is optimal for growing all kinds of produce, 40% of the menu is required to be purchased from within the state. In such a large state, "local" encompasses hundreds of miles, while on the East Coast, farmers are closer in proximity to the school districts they serve. Regardless of distance, our goal is always to prioritize produce as close to the source as possible.   

    For the states we serve and to celebrate local foods, we have created farmer maps that identify what kinds of produce our supply chain procures from farmers. In Illinois, for example, we have kale, apples, radishes, basil, microgreens, jalapenos and tomatoes. In South Carolina, we get mushrooms and peaches. These maps highlight the diversity of produce we have access to in each region we serve. They tell the story of not just what ends up on students’ plates, but a story of the abundance available to us grown within our communities.  


    How exactly does all this fresh produce end up on the lunch tray? Our core menu is set first, then we source what we need based on the availability in the region. Then we offer our Fresh Picks promotion, which are the seasonal items in that region, such as peaches or radishes. We display the farmer maps next to it that highlights the day’s Fresh Picks, as well as the farm where it came from. That way, the students have an idea of exactly where their food originated and who grew it. 

    At a recent farm-to-school session at D.D. Kirkland Early Childhood Center at Putnam City School District in Oklahoma City, the students engaged in counting and identifying various objects from an interactive book, said Brooklyn Celeborn, RD for Putnam City School District. "The book encouraged them to spot various farm-related items in the illustrations or lift flaps to uncover hidden animals. Following the book, the students were asked questions about farm animals, like their favorite farm animal and the sounds they make. This naturally led us to explore cows, pigs, and chickens."

    "Starting with cows, I asked the students if they knew which foods cows help produce. They eagerly raised their hands and mentioned items like cheese, yogurt, steak and milk. After discussing how cows contribute food to our dining tables, we played a fun game of ‘dairy farmer,’ which allowed the students to simulate milking a cow. Similarly, we learned about the essential role of pigs in providing pork, followed by an entertaining game of ‘pin the tail on the pig.’ Finally, we learned about chickens and their contributions, such as chicken nuggets and eggs. To put this lesson into practice, the students were told that a chicken ‘laid’ an egg in the classroom, so they went on an exciting egg hunt to find it. When the egg was found, the students brought it to me. I opened the egg and revealed a prize of animal crackers, hinting to the students that they would be taking home a bag themselves for their exemplary participation in this nutrition lesson!"

    From the youngest grades all the way to high school, local sourcing is an invaluable part of students’ nutrition education. It gives them a tangible connection to their communities and gives them a head start in thinking about where their food comes from. The farm-to-school movement brings students, teachers, food service workers and farmers together in the common goal of a healthful and abundant food system that’s open to all.