Local food procurement for school districts in Illinois just got easier, to the tune of $7.3 million. The USDA’s Local Food for Schools Cooperative Agreement Program (LFS) is providing this funding to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to distribute to school districts across the state. 

According to ISBE’s website: “The goal of LFS is to increase purchases of domestic, locally grown foods from local producers, small businesses, and socially disadvantaged farmers/producers for distribution to schools in order to build a more resilient local food chain by expanding and strengthening local and regional markets.”

All school districts need to do to get this grant money is to look up their district on ISBE’s funding allotment list and follow the steps to sign up. If your district is on the list, the money is yours!

And looking ahead to other opportunities for local food procurement, the Lake Michigan School Food Systems Innovation Hub, part of a national USDA initiative, will be providing grants between approximately $10,000 and $100,000 a year to collaboratives of K-12 schools, food producers, suppliers, and other partners to support school food supply chain and marketplace innovation. 

Local procurement may seem daunting, but there are many success stories throughout Illinois. We wanted to highlight one, Lincoln Elementary School District 27, to help inspire other schools to get involved and get excited about what’s possible. We spoke with Connie Crawley, Lincoln SD 27’s Food Service Director, to get the scoop on what’s on the menu. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

SGA: Tell us about your experience with local procurement? What foods do you get locally and what farms do you work with? How did you get started and what’s the impact in the cafeteria? 

Connie: Local procurement has been challenging at times. In the beginning, we met with farmers and our local farm bureau. We wanted to purchase from them. They had the product, but figuring out the relationship and how it would work took some time. One of the challenges was getting the farms to realize that we were a sure sale. Transportation of the product to the schools has been another deterrent. Finding farmers that have the staffing to deliver the product has been difficult, and staffing has prevented some farmers from placing a bid.

But we eventually found farms to work with, and our foods that we procure locally now are: ground beef, beef stew meat, round steak, ground pork, pork loin, ham, turkey, potatoes (variety), green beans, corn on the cob, winter squash (variety), cabbage, sweet peppers, and onions.

Our farms we work with currently are Petersburg Poultry, O’Rourke Family Gardens, Wolf Creek Farm, and Janie’s Mill. 

This program got started when our local hospital approached us about making a change in our breakfast and lunch program. During one of their surveys, our county was rated 2nd in obesity in Illinois. The hospital began thinking of ways to help with this issue. Knowing that schools feed two of the three meals children get a day, they wanted to begin with the youth of our county. Creating palettes for nutritious food begins at a young age. Many families and schools rely on “convenience food” – heat and serve or fast food type meals. Knowing that processed foods have a lot of the preservatives that lead to obesity and heart disease, it was an easy sell to make the transition to something healthier.

The hospital provided the funds to bring in Beyond Green: Sustainable Food Partners with Chef Greg Christian and his team. They provided a 2-week intense training with our staff, changing their thinking from heat and serve to working with chef knives and raw materials. Gone were the days of opening up canned fruit and vegetables and taking frozen patties out of a box. Lincoln 27 & Beyond was created. Over these last few years, we have been adding new recipes and serving other school districts. Our district consists of four elementary and one junior high school, totaling around 1100 students. We are now preparing food for three K-8 buildings, about 250-300 students.

The impact in the cafeteria has been very positive. Students have shown their satisfaction in many ways: 

  • – Participation has increased
  • – They stop in the kitchen after lunch and let the staff know how great it was
  • – When they first enter the kitchen students now comment daily how good it smells & looks
  • – They comment about their favorite meals
  • – They offer ways to make the meal better (they are not afraid to tell the truth when it comes to their food)
  • – They are throwing less food away

SGA: What are some key challenges with local procurement and how have you overcome them? 

Connie: I mentioned a few challenges above. Another big challenge that we are hoping to overcome, with the help of the Central Illinois FarmFed Co-op, is seasonality. As we know, summer is when the major crops are being harvested and schools are out for the summer. We have been only able to enjoy locally sourced produce for a few months, depending on the product. There is a group that is in the process of creating a co-op, where we would be able to purchase locally sourced produce that has been frozen. This would ensure that we could serve locally sourced vegetables many more months than we are now.

SGA: Do you have any plans to increase your local procurement? Anything you’d really like to get locally that you don’t yet or that you’re working on? 

Connie: We would love to increase our local purchasing. I have been in contact with some local farmers and there isn’t a lot of knowledge of this type of relationship – farm to school. There’s still apprehension on the farmers’ side. Our current farms are great in helping get the word out within their groups. Some of the items that we were getting locally, but are not available to us anymore are carrots, lettuce, summer squash. Other fresh items we would want to purchase locally are celery, broccoli, cauliflower, snap peas, and fruit. 

SGA: Any tips for other school districts who would like to incorporate more local food on their menus? 

Connie: I would suggest to start slow. Choose one item that you would like to purchase locally, and put that on the menu. We have been doing this for four years and we are still looking for more ways to add local food to our menus. Now that we purchase our protein locally, many of our entrees are made with local protein. Also, many of our breakfast items, are made from scratch using local purchased flour.