Farm-To-School Programs in Southern Arizona: A Case Study on the Economics of Local Foods

Dari Duval, Economic Impact Analyst, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Arizona
Ashley K. Bickel, Economic Impact Analyst, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Arizona
Dr. George Frisvold, Professor and Extension Specialist, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Arizona

Farm-to-school programs encourage local food purchasing by schools and school districts as part of their efforts to provide fresh, healthy school meal options for students and engage students in nutrition education. Farm-to-school programs are part of a broader local foods movement, which represents a burgeoning demand for foods that are source-identified and originate from within a certain proximity to consumers. One of the most commonly cited benefits of encouraging local foods is that it supports local farmers and businesses, strengthening local economies. Farm-to-school programs are an example of a program to promote local foods, and are used by schools to provide nutrition education, develop school gardens, and promote local food purchasing by school districts. This analysis focuses on the local food purchasing portion of farm-to-school programs in Southern Arizona, defined for this study as Cochise, Santa Cruz, Pima and Yuma counties. The analysis relies on data from the most recent Farm to School Census (2015), a national survey of farm-to-school programs including information on their characteristics and activities.

As the prevalence of farm-to-school programs increases and interest grows in promoting local foods, there is a need for improved information to fully understand the potential scope and scale of impacts and economic tradeoffs associated with increases in local foods activity, and to understand barriers to its future growth. As public funding goes towards programs to promote local foods with an eye towards economic development outcomes, we propose some key questions for program leaders and policy makers. The lessons learned from examining farm-to-school activities in Southern Arizona apply generally to local foods efforts in the region and can inform program planning and assessment to ensure that economic development goals tied to local foods efforts are producing their desired impacts in the community.

What did the study find?

Southern Arizona Farm to School Census Results

Schools and school districts in Southern Arizona actively conduct farm-to-school activities, including local food purchasing.

  • Out of a total of 467 school districts in Arizona, 265 responded to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census. Of these 265 districts, 22 percent (57 districts) reported being actively engaged in farm-to-school activities.
  • In Southern Arizona specifically, 25 percent (11 of 44 districts) of Farm to School Census respondents reported actively conducting farm-to-school activities in the 2013-2014 school year.
  • Nine of 11 respondents with active farm-to-school programs reported spending on local foods.
  • For those schools with local food programs, spending on local foods (not including milk) averaged $70,550 for the 2013-2014 school year (Table 1). Including local milk, spending on local foods averaged $113,050. Local milk is tallied separately because, in general, milk typically travels a short distance to final consumers due to its perishable nature.

Table 1: Local Food Expenditures of Southern Arizona School Food Authorities (SFAs) Participating in Farm-to-School Programs

Definitions of ‘local foods’ vary among respondents, though most respondents consider foods produced within Arizona as local.

  • 70 percent of Southern Arizona respondents with active farm-to-school programs consider food produced within the state of Arizona as local; 20 percent consider food produced within the same city or county as local.
  • In Arizona, farm-to-school buyers more commonly consider in-state-produced food as local compared with U.S. consumers in general, where 70 percent of respondents consider local as within the same county or within a 50-mile radius of the school.
  • The geographic definition of ‘local foods’ has important implications for assessing economic impacts of changes in school food spending. For states such as Arizona that produce a high share of certain vegetable commodities in major growing regions during times of the year when school is in session, schools may already be buying local without knowing it because there are few non-local options. Efforts to buy local in such cases may have negligible economic impacts.

The most commonly purchased local foods by farm-to-school programs in the 2013-2014 school year were milk, vegetables, and fruit.

  • By category, local milk was the most frequently served local food item, with eight Southern Arizona school food authorities indicating serving local milk daily (Table 2). Local fruit and vegetables were also commonly served on a daily or weekly basis. Most other local food products, such as meat, dairy products, eggs, grains, and other items are not typically served by Southern Arizona Farm to School Census respondents.
  • When asked to list their top five most commonly purchased local food items, respondents reported purchasing the following items: apples, oranges, bread, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, strawberries, tangerines, iceberg and other lettuces, kale, meat and poultry, melons, milk, tomatoes, watermelon, onions, peaches, salad mix, and spinach.

Table 2: Southern Arizona Farm to School Census Respondents by Frequency of Serving Local Food Category

Schools and school districts in Southern Arizona most often rely on distributors for purchasing local foods, though some do purchase directly from agricultural producers.

  • 90 percent of respondents with active farm-to-school programs in Southern Arizona purchase local foods through an intermediary, such as a distributor. Meanwhile, 40 percent obtain local foods directly from agricultural producers.

Barriers to local food purchasing include difficulty finding key items available year-round and a lack of suppliers and distributors offering local foods.

  • Other barriers cited include having appropriate facilities, equipment, and staff resources to store and prepare fresh produce. There is also the challenge of pre-planning school meal menus in cooperation with farms to contract produce months in advance of when it will be harvested, delivered, and served to students.

Economic Tradeoffs of Local Foods Activity

Local food promotion such as farm-to-school programs can have positive economic impacts to Southern Arizona’s economy; however, certain conditions must be met for those to occur.

  • Based upon this Southern Arizona case study, accounting for the tradeoffs associated with local food purchasing and production can reduce the direct effect of that local purchase by 20 to 40 percent.
  • Economic impacts of local foods efforts are generated through import substitution – purchases fulfilled through net new production of foods that otherwise would have been purchased from (and produced) outside the region.
  • Import substitution must be coupled with a net increase in agricultural production, either through an increase in the scale of production of produce or a shift from lower-value field crops to higher-value produce crops, to generate sizeable impacts. That said, shifting to local procurement can have a negligible effect depending upon the production and business decisions of individual producers and intermediaries and whether they’re expanding their businesses to meet the change in demand or merely shifting supply from one customer to another.
  • Increased purchases of local foods can lead to reduced spending for other local goods and services. For example, purchasing directly from a local producer could result in reduced spending on wholesaling services. Or, a shift from producing field crops to vegetable crops due to water resource constraints would lead to an increase in vegetable production, but also a decrease in field crop production and its associated multiplier effects. These economic tradeoffs mean that the net effects of local food spending will be lower than the gross effects.

Some school and school district food purchases are likely to be ‘local’ regardless of farm-to-school programs.

  • Milk is a commodity that is typically consumed near where it is produced due to its perishable nature. To account for this phenomenon, the Farm to School Census reports milk purchases separately.
  • 38 percent of reported Southern Arizona school spending on local foods was spent on fluid milk. In Arizona, nearly all milk production occurs in neighboring Pinal and Maricopa Counties, and therefore would be considered local (in-state) whether or not school districts keep track of their local food purchases.
  • Other food purchases likely to occur locally include fruits and vegetables that are produced during the winter months in Arizona, when cultivation is not possible in colder climates. For example, lettuce is a commodity for which few non-local options are available for portions of the school year.

A few key considerations can help local food programs concerned with economic impacts target their efforts to best generate positive impacts to the local economy.

  • Is the purchaser of local food increasing their spending on food or shifting their spending from non-local to local foods?
  • Is the local spending on something that is usually sourced from nearby, such as milk?
  • Is the producer of local food increasing the scale of their operation to meet the demand created or simply selling existing production to a different buyer?
  • If the scale of production isn’t increasing, are producers changing what they produce to meet demand?
  • If purchases take place through an intermediary such as a distributor or food hub, is the purchase causing them to increase the scale of their operation locally?
  • Does the definition of local for all parties involved match?
  • If demonstrating economic impacts of local foods to funders or stakeholders, how will you collect data on the actions of food chain actors, including growers, final buyers, and, if applicable, intermediaries?

How was the study done?

This analysis uses data from the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census for four Southern Arizona counties: Pima, Cochise, Santa Cruz, and Yuma counties. The analysis uses recommendations from the USDA Local Foods Toolkit, and primary data collection from local food system actors (Thilmany McFadden, et al, 2016). Economic impacts were estimated using the IMPLAN 3.1 input output model. The study examined the potential economic impacts of schools shifting food spending to local food options in place of non-local options. This analysis compared the impacts of an increase in vegetable production that was assumed to have no opportunity cost of spending and no natural resource constraints, an increase in vegetable production that accounted for the opportunity cost of school food spending, and an increase in vegetable production that accounted for both spending opportunity costs and natural resource constraints.