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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The school-lunch dilemma for Madison
Cost and scale remain obstacles to serving local food
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The Madison school district's food and nutrition production facility is a large, gray, industrial-looking building on Pflaum Road, with a loading bay in the back. Inside, baskets of hairnets line the hallways, and cases of preprocessed food are stacked high. It is in this building, in a windowless conference room, where Dustin Lundt and six of his colleagues gather weekly to determine the lunch menus for Madison's students.

"We meet to talk about different menu combinations, things that are popular in schools, new products we'd like to get onto the menu," says Lundt. "That drives what we need to purchase."

Before joining the Madison Metropolitan School District six years ago, Lundt worked for food-service giant Sysco. He is responsible for managing the school district's contracts with the companies that supply Madison's schoolchildren with their meals.

Dane County has a national-caliber farmers' market, and Madison has impressive foodie credentials, but the Madison Metropolitan School District serves 19,000 meals a day (PDF) based on products supplied by such corporations as Tyson, Cargill and AdvancePierre.

Despite the efforts of REAP Food Group and the now-defunct Madison School Food Initiative, these conventional food manufacturers have a secure grasp on the school district's business. This is largely because the United States Department of Agriculture, in addition to enforcing minimum nutritional standards, requires that the school district hold open bids for its highly competitive contracts. The large scale gives a huge advantage to national distributors and effectively shuts out smaller, more local farms and producers.

The district's most substantial contract is about to become available, and it's all but certain to be awarded once again to a national distributor. Substantial local alternatives will not even be at the table.

How much is your ketchup?

Like many other large school districts, Madison selects a prime vendor for all its main entree items, as well as most of its equipment. A prime vendor acts like a contractor, streamlining bookkeeping and keeping track of the hundreds of products the district uses every day.

"In the old times before prime vendor, you'd do price checking between several different distributors, which just didn't make a lot of sense," says Steve Youngbauer, director of the school district's food and nutrition production facility. "You'd spend a lot of time just calling them up and saying, 'How much is your ketchup?'"

The school district's current prime vendor is Sysco, an international distribution corporation based in Houston. During the 2011-2012 school year, the district spent $2.3 million with Sysco. The advantage of the prime-vendor system is that the district is spared the burden of tracking where its products are coming from any given week.

"Sysco's the distributor," says Youngbauer. "They're not manufacturing it; they could have gotten the product anywhere in the country."

Prime vendors are chosen primarily for their price, but other factors, such as their delivery schedule and credit processing, play a role as well.

For fruits and vegetables, the school district relies on weekly produce bids. In any given week, one of four vendors will win the contract: Sysco, Iowa-based Loffredo, La Crosse-based Reinhart and Milwaukee-based V. Marchese. Despite being headquartered in Wisconsin, Reinhart and V. Marchese obtain their products nationally. One source for local supplies is SYSCO, which presents an annual report to the school district with likely prospects for locally based companies.

"I think there's a growing movement toward looking at local opportunities, and we want to participate in that where it makes sense for us," says Youngbauer.

That's a lot of broccoli

Natasha Smith manages the Farm-to-School program for REAP, a Madison-based nonprofit that connects local farmers with local markets. REAP tries to build the infrastructure necessary for local growers to provide products to the school district.

REAP has worked with Lundt and Youngbauer to include a "geographic preference clause" on another USDA program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. The program provides funding for purchasing local fresh fruits and vegetables that are served as a mid-morning or afternoon snack.

Every Thursday, REAP coordinates the distribution and processing of the produce in the program, which is now in place at 12 of Madison's lowest-income schools. Contracts for the other four weekdays are lumped into the district's regular weekly produce bids.

Competitive bidding isn't REAP's only obstacle to increasing its market share; capacity is another. Madison has the second-largest school district in Wisconsin, after Milwaukee. On a given day, the district might serve 1,500 pounds of broccoli. Getting all that produce from one source, through one vendor, for one menu item, is not practical.

"It's a lot of time, and it's a lot of effort to run that snack program for just one day a week," says Smith. "Even if they put out a bid for another day, right now we wouldn't be able to do it."

Lack of direction

There are other obstacles to providing fresh, local food in Madison schools.

The district requires all the produce served in school meals to come from farms with Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, certification. GAP certification is meant to ensure that participating farmers use responsible pesticide and irrigation techniques, that field workers have wash stations, and that logs are kept for quality control. But the costs of the farm modifications necessary to obtain the certificate can be prohibitive for small farmers. The insurance that suppliers are required to carry is also expensive.

"You have to remember the number of customers we're feeding every day, so if there's a problem with the product, you're generally talking about a very large situation," says Youngbauer. "A small farm is generally not going to have that level of insurance."

Finally, local farmers may lack processing facilities, barring them from the school-lunch market.

Lundt says a lot of the district's produce comes in preprocessed form. Broccoli, for instance, arrives already cut into florets. "We're not getting heads of broccoli, just because we don't have the facility or the manpower to be processing that much produce."

Smith agrees this is an issue for farmers who are trying to sell whole items. "What would be ideal is for [the school district] to have the equipment and the capacity to be able to receive whole vegetables and cut them up themselves. That would make it much easier for local farmers to sell to the district. It would certainly be a change, and it would certainly be a challenge, but it would not be infeasible."

In 2010 the school district engaged a consulting firm called Lunch Lessons LLC through the efforts of a grassroots group of parents, chefs and food-service workers. In a report intended to be preliminary, Lunch Lessons recommended against implementing a wholesale shift in sourcing, largely due to lack of direction.

"We found the district has not reached a defined vision of what it wants the school meal program to look like," reads the report. "We were told there was an interest in moving to a whole-foods scratch environment in Madison's schools, but we did not find that there was an established district-driven consensus of priorities or goals or even a wish list."

Despite the obstacles, Smith is upbeat about the prospects of more locally sourced food making its way into school lunches.

"The district is in a tough place in terms of what they can spend and what they can do, but they should be commended for the efforts they've made so far," she says. "I think intentions are good; it's just a question of working within this system."

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