Farm to School programs, linking children in K-12 schools with locally grown foods and the farmers who produce them are growing by leaps and bounds across the United States. In 2012, more than 12,400 schools were engaged in Farm to School activities.1 In Minnesota, where the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is headquartered, two-thirds of the state’s K-12 students attend school in districts that are participating in Farm to School.
Many schools are now looking for ways to extend their Farm to School programs beyond the season for locally grown fresh produce. One avenue for engaging in Farm to School year-round is preserving the local bounty through innovative strategies for freezing fruits and vegetables grown nearby.
In this report, IATP explores several potential avenues for freezing locally and regionally grown produce on a small-to-medium scale for the K-12 marketplace: schools freezing on-site in their own kitchen facilities; mobile freezing units; commercial kitchens and small freezing enterprises; and co-pack relationships with existing freezing companies that could potentially serve the K-12 market.
Our research draws insight from the first-hand experiences of a range of ventures around the country that are now exploring freezing strategies for fruits and vegetables grown in their region. While some of those ventures are aimed squarely at serving K-12 schools, others are seeking to process local farm products for other markets while providing fair prices to their farm partners. All shed light on the opportunities and challenges of modestly sized approaches for freezing produce. Our findings include the following:
Freezing on-site in K-12 kitchens
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.
The cost of the finished product is specific to the crop and varies greatly depending on the particular processing method used, the hourly cost of labor and the purchase price paid to the supplier. Identifying the most efficient processing method given available equipment and staffing is key to choosing effective freezing activities.
A strong majority of the school food service staff interviewed reported that the finished cost of various local foods they had frozen on-site was within their budget for occasional use. As schools gain experience with freezing, they tend to hone in on crops and freezing methods that are most cost-effective given their particular operating environment.
We collaborated with the Winona (Minn.) Area Public Schools to estimate per-pound costs for freezing three locally grown crops (zucchini, broccoli and winter squash) on-site in school kitchens, based on the equipment currently available. We used a wide range of hypothetical hourly labor rates for staff and raw product costs to illustrate the interaction between the cost of key inputs and the cost of final product.
Having staff process locally grown product on-site was estimated to cost somewhat more than purchasing commercially available frozen product under most of the scenarios tested.
On the other hand, the finished cost of product frozen on-site was found to be comparable to or, in some cases, half to one-third the cost of purchasing pre-cut, fresh product from commercial sources during the winter months.
The cost of freezing on-site was found to be significantly lower per-pound than commercially available alternatives when donated product is used (such as from a student farm).
Schools we interviewed reported a wide range of benefits to their freezing activities, including high quality foods, strong student acceptance, incorporation of more vegetables into school meals, the potential for student and community engagement, and extended Farm to School programming.
Among the barriers to broader adoption of freezing strategies in K-12 settings are busy schedules for school food service staff, limited federal and state reimbursements for school meal programs given the cost of providing quality nutrition, and insufficient public resources to adequately equip school kitchens across the country to handle minimally processed foods.
Mobile produce processing units
Akin to mobile meat processing units that travel from farm-to-farm, mobile produce processing units are in limited use and face a number of significant challenges. Among them are limited processing capacity given their modest size, significant management costs and potential mismatches with farmers’ interests in processing. Mobile units without a carefully crafted supply of raw produce may be challenged to meet K-12 schools’ needs for a predictable, consistent frozen product.
Multi-use facilities and small freezing ventures
Various small freezing businesses, business incubators and multi-use kitchens around the country are now exploring a range of 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. Several of these ventures are demonstrating that local produce can be frozen on a cost-competitive basis on a smaller scale, typically following considerable experimentation and honing of their strategy toward those products that can be processed most efficiently.
Enterprises that invest heavily in facilities and equipment and focus exclusively on freezing crops that are highly seasonal may struggle to cash flow their operation. Helpful strategies include:
leasing or sharing space and equipment rather than owning it
handling crops that can be processed early or late in the growing season, or year-round if possible
complementing freezing activity with other types of processing that can occur year-round and maximize use of available facilities.
Focusing on organic or higher-value specialty frozen items can help command the higher prices that may be needed to offset lower product volumes.
Buyers seeking to freeze locally grown produce can be an attractive market for growers. Benefits identified through the examples highlighted in this report include limited marketing time, larger volume sales, sales contracts in advance of the growing season, repeat business, and a market for surplus produce and “seconds” that may otherwise be hard to sell.
Additional public investment is needed to support quality feasibility analysis, business planning, business mentoring support and improved access to financial capital for start-up businesses in this sector.
Co-pack relationships with existing freezing companies
Co-pack relationships with existing freezing companies appear to hold considerable promise and offer significant benefits to K-12 buyers. Among the potential benefits are flexibility in the crops to be processed, product quality that meets industry standards and limited investment of K-12 staff resources.
Co-packers’ sourcing protocols vary but may include elements like significant minimum drop sizes (e.g., by the 40,000 pound semi-load), trace-ability protocols, on-farm food safety audits and deliveries to the processing facility within very specific windows of time. This, in turn, may require growers to carefully coordinate planting, harvesting and delivery schedules.
The availability of potential co-pack partners depends greatly on location. In Minnesota, intense consolidation in the produce freezing industry has sharply reduced the number of mid-scale freezing operations. Some produce distributors have the capacity to both cut and freeze produce, and may be potential co-pack partners if sourcing protocols and volumes can be synced effectively with suppliers. Other regions of the country that have more moderately scaled processors in place may offer a broader range of co-pack opportunities.
In the process of exploring co-pack opportunities, we interviewed Sno Pac Foods, a fourth-generation processing company located in Southeast Minnesota. Although Sno Pac’s frozen, organic products are primarily sold into the retail marketplace, they also offer products in bulk that are appropriate to institutional food service. Pricing for many of their products are competitive with prices currently paid by area school districts for frozen, conventionally grown vegetables. Depending on districts’ volume needs and location, Sno Pac products may offer an attractive option for districts looking to expand their use of locally grown products beyond the local harvest season.