As I look at the snow outside my window, I have to admit it: The summer’s bounty of sweet corn and tomatoes is long gone, but the demand for local food keeps chugging along—particularly among K-12 schools that are eager to keep their Farm to School program going even after the snow flies.
How can we provide new opportunities for our farmers and make local foods available year-round? One strategy worth a look is preserving the local bounty through freezing fruits and vegetables.
Today, IATP is releasing new research on innovative strategies for freezing locally and regionally grown produce for the K-12 marketplace. We looked at several small and mid-scale approaches including schools freezing on-site in their own kitchens, multi-use kitchen facilities, small freezing enterprises, and “co-pack” relationships where a processing company freezes produce on behalf of a third party, like a group of farmers.
Our research draws insight from the first-hand experience of ventures around the country that are now freezing fruits and vegetables grown in their region. While there has been considerable zeal of late around the concept of “food hubs,” we found a mixed picture, and reasons for both optimism and caution. Here are a few highlights:
Freezing at school
One way that schools can tap into frozen, local foods is to buy fresh produce and do the freezing themselves, in their own kitchens. A variety of schools around the country are now doing so and their experience shows that:
Freezing locally grown produce on-site in K-12 facilities can be a positive and affordable strategy for interested schools when focused on appropriate crops and when freezing activities are tailored effectively to the school’s operating environment. While freezing will not be a fit for all schools, it can be attractive for those that can conduct modified scratch cooking.
Participating schools report a wide range of benefits to their freezing activities including high quality foods, strong student acceptance, using more vegetables in school meals, student and community engagement and extended Farm to School programming.
In general, we found that freezing local produce on-site can cost considerably less than buying non-local, fresh produce during the winter months and somewhat more than buying commercially available frozen product.
Among the barriers to freezing at school are staff time constraints, limited funding for school meal programs overall and insufficiently equipped school kitchens.
Small businesses and multi-use kitchen facilities
A range of small freezing businesses, business incubators and commercial or multi-use kitchens are now exploring various approaches to freezing locally grown fruits and vegetables. Their experience illustrates the importance of focusing very strategically on suitable crops, finished products that are tailored effectively to the marketplace and efficient processing methods. Business models that rely solely on processing smaller quantities of seasonal product may struggle to cash-flow, but ventures that complement freezing with other types of processing activity are showing promise.
For farmers, selling to entities that will freeze their product is worth exploring. Benefits from such relationships that were identified in these case studies include limited marketing time for farmers, the potential for sales contracts in advance of the growing season, repeat business, and a market for surplus produce and “seconds” that may otherwise be hard for farmers to sell.
Co-pack relationships with existing freezing companies
Lastly, co-pack relationships with existing freezing companies can connect schools with a source of high quality, regionally grown frozen produce.
Depending on the size and practices of the co-packer, farmers selling into co-packers can face some significant hurdles. Co-packers’ sourcing protocols may include significant minimum delivery amounts from farmers (e.g., by the semi-load), on-farm food safety audits and deliveries to the processing facility within very narrow windows of time.
This, in turn, may require growers to carefully coordinate planting, harvesting and delivery schedules. Crop varieties suited to the fresh market may not be optimal for freezing on a commercial scale.
The availability of potential co-pack partners also depends greatly on location. In Minnesota, intense consolidation in the produce freezing industry in recent decades has sharply reduced the number of independent freezing companies. Other regions of the U.S. that have more moderately scaled freezing operations in place may offer a broader range of co-pack opportunities.
So, all in all, it’s a mixed picture and one that reflects the intertwined challenges and opportunities of food entrepreneurship. Please check out the report to learn more about the experiences of schools and food entrepreneurs working to keep the bounty coming, even after the snow flies.