New farm-to-school procurement strategy brings more healthy food to schools

It’s not always easy for school districts to secure and serve the most fresh and healthy food in school meals. The process is often hindered by outdated policy and systems practices that prevent students from receiving the best healthy food.

That is changing in San Diego, where the San Diego Unified School District has emerged as a nationwide leader in innovative programs connecting San Diego County farmers and their healthy food to local schools.

Many of these programs are in collaboration with the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA). Through HHSA’s Healthy Works initiative, a program of Live Well San Diego, the district

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and HHSA have partnered on numerous policy and systems changes that provide easier access to healthy local food.

Examples are the district’s robust Farm to School program that has served as a model for other school districts in recent years, while its Breakfast in the Classroom program increased attendance and continues to help students begin their day with a healthy meal, vital to better learning.

A new strategy between the district and HHSA under Healthy Works will further connect schools to healthy, locally grown food. The strategy involves innovative contract procurement language that enables the district to engage in an “informal bid” process when contracting with outside providers, often third-party distributors.

This process allows for smaller amounts of specific local foods to be purchased and incorporated into the district’s food system, and served to students in school meals.

Where before, a request for proposal (RFP) involving a variety of school-food needs was placed in a single RFP, and the district was required to select the lowest bidder for this all-encompassing order, now the district places smaller bids for specific needs – a large amount of organically grown broccoli, for instance – in a separate proposal targeted to entities capable of fulfilling that need. That smaller bid must be under a certain threshold, depending on the products, keeping costs down.

“The informal bid allows for creative thinking in the way the district writes bids for food,” said Naomi Billups, HHSA nutrition manager. “An informal-bid allows the district, for example, to seek out a food item that isn’t processed, or is locally grown, strengthening that connection to the local farms.”

This informal bid approach is now getting started, with that long-term, positive connection between our schools and farms expected to strenghten even more. An initial example is the use of the informal-bid process in an arrangement between the school district and the International Rescue Committee in San Diego, wherein refugee farmers at a farm in Pauma Valley supplied a small amount of food to the district, during the 2011-12 school year. For more information contact Ashley Cassat.