Abstract

Methods

School food procurement data from two school districts similar in size and demographics (one participating in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program [FFVP] and one not participating) located in the rural Mississippi Delta were collected for this observational study. Data collection covered two academic years, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. Research staff members coded and classified foods into eight categories – fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, dairy, added sugars, fats, and miscellaneous. Summary statistics (food group amounts and percentages) were computed for descriptive purposes.

 Results

For the non-FFVP district, the largest procurement amounts for fruit and vegetable categories were juices and potatoes, while for the FFVP district, they were apples and potatoes. The number of various fruits and vegetables procured for the FFVP district were greater than the non-FFVP district (16-18 versus 12 different fruits; 19-20 versus 17-18 different vegetables, respectively). For both districts and years combined, 146,678 pounds of fruit and 100,779 pounds of vegetables were purchased.

Application to Child Nutrition Professionals

Although school districts purchase substantial amounts of fruits and vegetables each year, few of these items are procured locally. Enhancing readily available identification of local items, offering training opportunities focused on rural and small school districts regarding how to procure local foods within constraints, and continuing efforts like the Farm to School Census are all ways to promote procurement of local items. Likewise, engagement of school administrators with local producers is necessary for mutually beneficial effects on school nutrition programs and local agricultural economies.

Full Article

Procurement of Foods in Mississippi Delta Schools

In Mississippi, the state with the nation’s lowest median household income, more than one third of children are overweight or obese (State Obesity Data, 2020). Agriculture is the number one industry in Mississippi, employing approximately 17.4% of the state’s workforce on nearly 35,000 farms (Mississippi Agriculture Snapshot, 2020). Hence, using traditional agricultural strengths of Mississippi may offer a unique approach to addressing childhood obesity in this state. In particular, enhancing Farm to School (F2S) efforts, particularly related to local food procurement, may prove especially effective as such initiatives can strengthen the local food system and ultimately increase consumption of local foods (Bobronnikov et al., 2021).

Revised standards put in place for school meal programs increased the amounts of fruits and vegetables served, emphasized whole grain-rich foods, required that only lower-fat and nonfat milk be offered, limited calories, reduced saturated fat and sodium, and required that each student’s lunch include a fruit or vegetable (Child Nutrition Programs, 2018). School districts can facilitate meeting these new standards as local foods available via F2S span the plate including fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes, dairy, and animal protein. The incorporation of fruits and vegetables is particularly important because Mississippi children consume less than one serving of fruits and vegetables daily (“State Obesity Data,” 2020), well below the recommended 2-5 daily servings which puts Mississippi children at increased risk for nutrient deficiency.

A recent literature review published by USDA (Bobronnikov et al., 2021) indicated that nationwide, some of the biggest barriers to F2S are procurement, which includes finding food, knowing what food to request and in what quantity, mismatched agricultural calendars with academic availability, and funding. Despite the known benefits of F2S enhancing local economies, supporting job growth, and promoting fruit and vegetable intake in school children, the perception of the barriers remains greater than the noted benefits. Hence, the objective of the present study was to determine school food procurement amounts (weight and cost) in two Mississippi school districts to illustrate the potential economic and agricultural impacts of purchasing local.

Methods

Design and Sample

The study was designed to collect descriptive data on food procurement from two school districts located in the rural Mississippi Delta. Schools were similar in size with three schools in each district and between 600-785 students. The majority of students in both districts identified as Black (90% and 99%) and participated in free or reduced lunch (73% and 100%). School food service administrators from the two school districts, one of which participated in the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), were contacted by study investigators and agreed to provide procurement records for research purposes. Procurement documents were sent via email to study investigators and included all records for prime, milk, bread, and vegetable vendors. Data collection covered two academic years, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. The Institutional Review Board of Delta State University approved and classified the study as exempt.

 Data Analysis

Procurement records, provided in portable document format (pdf), were converted to Excel spreadsheets for coding and analysis. Research staff members coded and classified foods into eight categories – fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, dairy, added sugars, fats, and miscellaneous. The fruits category included fresh, frozen, dried, and sauced (e.g., apple) fruits, and fruit juices and slushies. The vegetables category included fresh, frozen, dried (e.g., kidney beans), pickled, and sauced (e.g., tomato) vegetables, and vegetable juices. The grains category included items made from corn, oat, rice, and wheat. The protein category included beef, chicken, eggs, fish, nuts, pork, seafood, and turkey. The dairy category included cheese, ice cream, milk (wet and dry), pudding, sour cream, and yogurt. The added sugars category included sugar and syrup. The fats category included margarine, oil, and whipped topping. The miscellaneous category included baking items (e.g., corn starch), coffee, condiments, flavoring (e.g., spices), gelatin, gravy, salt, tea, vinegar, and water. Mixed items were classified according to their main ingredient (e.g., breakfast burritos were classified as pork).

To enable comparisons among the eight food categories, all procurement amounts were converted to weight (in pounds). The majority of item descriptions provided sufficient information to allow for weight calculations (i.e., number of items, size of individual item, and unit). For those items with insufficient descriptions, missing information was obtained from corresponding food manufacturer websites. For liquid foods (e.g., milk, juice), conversion rates were based on values obtained from two websites (www.calculateme.com; www.aqua-calc.com). For whole fruits and vegetables, average weights were obtained from two websites (www.aqua-calc.com; https://weightofstuff/average-weight-of-all-fruits-and-vegetables).

Statistical analyses were performed using SAS® software, version 9.4 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC). Summary statistics (food group amounts and percentages) for separate school districts (FFVP and non-FFVP) and the two academic years (2018-2019 and 2019-2020) were computed for descriptive purposes. We did not conduct inferential testing on differences between the two school districts or between academic years because of small sample size (n=2).

Results and Discussion

Results from FFVP Participating District

Procurement total and percentage amounts for the FFVP school district are presented in Table 1. In the 2018-2019 academic year, fruits and vegetables each accounted for approximately 9-11% by weight and 10-13% of expenditures. Dairy alone accounted for over 60% by weight and protein and dairy represented over half of expenditures. The fruits category consisted of 18 different items with four items – apples, oranges, mixed fruit, and pears – representing over half by weight and over half of expenditures. The vegetables category consisted of 20 different items with four items – potatoes, tomatoes, greens, and corn – representing over half by weight and over half of expenditures. In the 2019-2020 school year, 16 different fruits were purchased, two less than the 2018-2019 school year, with three items– apples, juice, and oranges – representing over half by weight and over half of expenditures. In the 2019-2020 school year, 19 different vegetables were purchased, one less than the 2018-2019 school year, with three items – potatoes, tomatoes, and legumes – representing over half by weight, while potatoes, tomatoes, and greens represented over half of expenditures. Differences between the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 academic years were small – less than 5% – with some notable exceptions (Figures 1 and 2). In the 2019-2020 academic year, fruit weight and expenditure amounts increased by 11% and 7%, respectively; vegetable amounts increased by less than 3%. Grains weight and expenditures amounts increased by 6% and 7%, respectively, while dairy weight and expenditures decreased by 27% and 15%, respectively. For both academic years combined, 90,501 pounds of fruit and 60,095 pounds of vegetables were purchased.

Results from Non-FFVP Participating District

Procurement percentage amounts for the non-FFVP school district are presented in Table 2. In the 2018-2019 academic year, fruits and vegetables each accounted for approximately 14-17% by weight and 14% of expenditures. Dairy accounted for almost 40% by weight, while grains and protein combined represented approximately half of expenditures. The fruits category consisted of 12 different items, with juice alone accounting for 50% by weight, while apples and juice represented almost half of expenditures. The vegetables category consisted of 18 different items with three items – potatoes, tomatoes, and juice – representing over half by weight and potatoes, tomatoes, and corn representing over half of expenditures. In the 2019-2020 academic year, 12 different fruits were purchased, the same number as the 2018-2019 academic year, with juice alone again accounting for over 50% by weight while apples and juice represented half of the expenditures. The vegetables category consisted of 17 different items, one less than the 2018-2019 school year, with three items combined – potatoes, tomatoes, and juice – representing over half by weight and over half of expenditures. Differences between the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 academic years were small – less than 5% – with fruit percentages increasing by 2-3% and vegetable percentages decreasing by 3% (Figures 1 and 2). For both academic years combined, 56,177 pounds of fruit and 40,684 pounds of vegetables were purchased.

In this study, the FFVP district purchased more fruits and vegetables than the non-FFVP district. By weight, apples and potatoes were the most purchased fruit and vegetable in the FFVP district, while juices and potatoes were the most purchased fruit and vegetable in the non-FFVP district.’ For all vegetables and most fruits procured during academic years 2018-2020, schools could purchase these locally in Mississippi. To gain an understanding of the potential impact of local procurement on schools and the local agricultural economy, we projected local procurement amounts of produce purchased by the school districts, as well as foods commonly grown in the area. To feed 500 school children at least one locally procured fruit or vegetable each week (given 1 cup serving sizes and 40 weeks), a producer could count on a school district purchasing 20,000 pounds of greens, 6,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, 3,125 pounds of watermelon, and 1,000 pounds of blueberries during an academic year. However, issues such as seasonality, volume, profitability, and processing need to be considered for schools to purchase produce from local farmers. Engagement of school administrators with local producers is necessary for bringing about mutually beneficial effects on school nutrition programs and local agricultural economies.

Conclusions and Applications

During the 2013-2014 school year, schools nationwide spent nearly $790 million on local foods (About The Farm to School Census, 2019). Data from the Farm to School Census represents only those schools who opted to respond to the survey. Additionally, identifying which foods are local can be difficult if they are procured from broadline distributors or wholesalers and not explicitly labeled or identified as local. Therefore, reported amounts purchased of local items may underrepresent the actual amount schools spend on local foods. During the 2011-2012 school year, schools that reported serving local foods, 53% reported obtaining food directly from farmers and other producers, while 77% reported using a distributor (USDA, 2019). School nutrition professionals may request that local items are marked or identified as such which may in turn be a solution for schools to more frequently identify purchases from broadline distributors and wholesalers.

A recent trend in local food procurement is that larger school districts (enrollment > 5,000 students), urban districts, and districts located in counties with a higher density of farmers’ markets reported being likely to serve local foods daily (Ralston et al., 2017). Small or medium size schools are more likely to purchase foods on a weekly basis (instead of daily), which may affect purchasing decisions (Stokes & Arendt, 2018). Other factors identified that may affect purchasing decisions included storage capacity, delivery availability, and product use (Stokes & Arendt, 2018). Given that more than 50% of school districts across the US are rural and small (Johnson et al., 2014), increased outreach for training and resources related to procurement of local items is needed in these areas. Procurement processes in general can be confusing and viewed as inconsistent and complicated (School Nutrition Association, 2016). Those affiliated with the School Nutrition Association have advocated for years, and particularly in a White Paper published in 2016, for increased attention for training and technical assistance for operators who must interpret and apply quickly changing laws and policies related to procurement.

The Mississippi Department of Education operates the largest school purchasing cooperative in the nation (Mississippi Department of Education, n.d.). Items available to participating districts include produce, milk, ice cream, bread, general foods, and supplies. Through this purchasing cooperative, food prices are more affordable, and procurement is simplified. However, logistical challenges still exist in Mississippi, where procurement of foods for school meals is highly coordinated. In other places where there are disjointed efforts to procure foods, local food may not even be considered as an option.

Finding existing distributors who advertise and offer local foods may be one option to help ease food safety concerns, make products more affordable, and assure quality standards. Food hubs, cooperatives, and buying groups may also be options. Adding local items to menus can also pose challenges to standardized menus and may force changes to traditional offerings. Seasonality must be considered and oftentimes the volume needed for larger schools may not be available from one producer (Bobronnikov et al., 2021). School nutrition professionals may consider providing detailed information about what is currently used and forecasted needs may help producers see the benefits of seeking school purchasing contracts or developing their own cooperatives.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Debra Johnson from Delta Health Alliance for assistance with data cleaning, Clara Adams and Joann Martin for their flexibility and willingness to provide information, Ryan Betz for facilitating communication, and Jordan Simmons for assistance with manuscript preparation.

References

Bobronnikov, E., Boyle, M., Grosz, M., Lipton, I., Nutter, R., Velez, M., & Yadav, L. (2021). Farm to School Literature Review. https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/defaul t/files /resource-files/Farm-to-School-LitReview.pdf

Cline, T. J. (2008). Purchasing practices, barriers, and industry support in Child Nutrition Programs needed to meet wellness policy requirements [Dissertation, Iowa State University]. Digital Repository. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/rtd/15660Federal Register (2018). Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/12/12/2018-26762/child-nutrition-programs-flexibilities-for-milk-whole-grains-and-sodium-requirements

Johnson, L. D., Mitchel, A. L., & Rotherham, A. J. (2014). Federal Education Policy in Rural America. 50. https://bellwethereducation.org/publication/federal-education-policy-rural-america

Mississippi Agriculture Snapshot. (2020, December). Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. https://www.mdac.ms.gov/agency-info/mississippi-agriculture-snapshot/

Mississippi Department of Education (n.d.). Purchasing and Food Distribution. https://www .mdek 12. org /OCN/PFD

Ralston, K., Beaulieu, E., Hyman, J., Benson, M., & Smith, M. (2017). Daily Access to Local Foods for School Meals: Key Drivers. 36. https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=82944

School Nutrition Association. (2016). Solving the procurement puzzle: Managing the complexities of doing business in K-12 school foodservice. https://schoolnutrition.org /uploadedFiles/Resources_and_Research/Operations/WhitePaper-SolvingtheProcurement Puzzle.pdf

State Obesity Data. (2020). The State of Childhood Obesity. https://stateofchildhoodobesity.org/ states/

Stokes, N., & Arendt, S. W. (2018). Farm-to-school product purchasing frequencies reported by school food service employees. 11. https://schoolnutrition.org/uploadedFiles/5_News_and_Publications/4_The_Journal_of_Child_Nutrition_and_Management/Fall_2018/Fall2018-Farm-to-School-Product-Purchasing-Frequencies.pdf

United States Department of Agriculture. (2019). The Farm to School census and comprehensive review summary report. Food and Nutrition Services. https://www.fns.usda.gov/cfs/farm-school-census-and-comprehensive-review

Biography

Alicia S. Landry PhD, RD, LDN, SNS is an Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas. Jessica L. Thomson, PhD is a Research Epidemiologist and Tameka I. Walls is a Research Epidemiolgist and Post Doc at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Delta Human Research Program in Stoneville, Mississippi.

Purpose / Objectives

The objective of the present study was to deterine school food procurement amounts (weight and cost) in two Mississippi school districts to illustrate the potential economic and agricultural impacts of purchasing local foods for use in school meals.


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