This tipsheet from the Montana Farmers Market Network was created to provide best practices and recommendations to Montana farmers market operators and vendors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Find a Local Food Seller
Looking for carrots? Interested in local lentils? Source local food in your area using our database of farmers, ranchers, processors, and distributors that have expressed interest in selling to institutions.
Why Create a Farm to Cafeteria Program in My Institution?
Many Farm to Cafeteria initiatives start with motivated foodservice professionals interested in serving fresher, healthier food that helps supports the local economy. While the lion’s share of the challenges will fall under your purview as a foodservice professional, so too will the accolades and many of the benefits of Farm to Cafeteria. The number one reason to purchase local food is because of the high quality and tastiness of such products. In addition, purchasing local food can increase meal participation and foster positive community relations. Finally, many foodservice professionals feel that because the average food product changes hands 33 times between the field and the plate, decreasing that number also decreases the opportunity for mishandling and potentially dangerous contamination. In other words, knowing the farmer can increase confidence in the safety of the food.
As the number of Farm to Cafeteria programs in Montana has increased in recent years, government and non-profit organizations have also increased support of such programs. The Montana Department of Agriculture actively promotes the use of Montana beef in institutions while the state’s Office of Public Instruction trains foodservice directors and teachers around local procurement and nutrition education. The National Farm to School Network, a non-profit organization established in 2007, offers valuable resources and support for schools involved in Farm to School as does FoodCorps, a rapidly growing national program affiliated with AmeriCorps that places young professionals in schools to promote Farm to School activities.
The Montana Association of Health Care Providers (MHA) showed its strong support of Farm to Hospital in 2012 by giving the annual Innovation in Healthcare Award to Livingston HealthCare Center for its work incorporating local, healthy food in its cafeteria and menu options. In corrections, the Montana State Prison has been recognized by the National Institute of Corrections for its cutting-edge agriculture programs that aim to reduce recidivism.
In the non-profit world, countless community groups and statewide organizations exist primarily to support local food and Farm to Cafeteria in particular. These include NCAT’s Farm to Cafeteria Network, the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center in Ronan, Western Sustainability Exchange in Livingston, Garden City Harvest and Community Food and Agriculture Coalition in Missoula, Community GATE in Glendive, Madison Valley Farm to Fork in Ennis, and many more.
These examples show that widespread support of Farm to Cafeteria is growing, making it increasingly easy for foodservice professionals like you to galvanize community and administrative support behind your efforts to procure local, healthy food.
“I like knowing that our foodservice model helps put federal dollars into our state’s economy when we make local sourcing a priority. It also bridges the lunchroom with the classroom and starts a dialogue with kids about where food comes from, providing an excellent opportunity to discuss science, biology, math, and practical culinary arts— exactly what a 21st century school district should be doing with kids.”
— Ed Christenson, Assistant Supervisor of Missoula County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services
Models of Farm to Cafeteria
There are a variety of different ways to bring local food into an institution. Below are a few of the most common models institutions are using in their Farm to Cafeteria programs:
A special event such as a “locally grown lunch” that features multiple local items is a great way to get a Farm to Cafeteria program started. Special events help showcase efforts around local food while allowing foodservice professionals to ease into the challenges of local food procurement and preparation.
Offering and labeling fresh, local items on a salad bar is likely to increase your cafeteria’s sales as well as provide healthy options for consumers. In Montana, the best months to do this are April through November when fresh produce is in season.
Incorporation into Regular Meals
Once your Farm to Cafeteria program has established relationships with local vendors you can regularly incorporate local items into everyday menus. For example, you might substitute your current out-of-state bread or flour with versions made from Montana-grown grains. And don’t forget to label these items on your menu—give eaters a chance to be as proud of the meal as you are! You might also want to feature special items on a regular basis, such as a “harvest of the month” or similar initiative that educates consumers about seasonal availability. Some of your special items may become so popular that you’ll want to include them in your daily menu.
An innovative way to support local farmers while incentivizing employees to eat healthy, local food is to begin an employee Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Connect with a local farmer who offers CSA shares to organize a cooperative purchase and organize weekly deliveries of fresh food.
Some larger institutions host weekly or monthly farmers markets that make it easy for employees, visitors, patients, and others to purchase local food at their facility.
For institutions that off er catering services, consider offering an “all-local” meal option as a way to expand your Farm to Cafeteria efforts.
The educational and therapeutic benefits of gardening are innumerable, making on-site gardens an important component of many Farm to Cafeteria programs. Your institution can utilize the garden’s bounty in the cafeteria and also to host educational activities like cooking classes and nutrition workshops.
How Can I Find Local Products?
Identifying sources of local and Montana food products can be a challenge but there are many ways to get started. There are many distributors, large and small, that carry Montana food products. Below we’ve included the names of a few, including a list of Montana products carried by Sysco and FSA. Also, if there’s a Montana product you’d like your vendor to carry, make a request! Vendors value your institution’s business and may be happy to add a new item to their product list.
Quality Foods Distributing in Bozeman carries Montana grains, meat, dairy, and more.
Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative (WMGC) in Ronan uses Charlie’s Produce, based out of Spokane, as their main distributor. Charlie’s serves most of Western Montana, including Bozeman, Butte, and Helena. To place an order or check on product availability, you can contact the Co-op at (406) 726-4769.
Tips and Tools for Food Service Professionals
Purchasing Local Food Guide 2012 Though originally developed with schools in mind, this how-to guide includes a local procurement safety checklist, info on how to apply geographic preference in the bidding process, and other helpful tips and resources that are applicable for food service professionals in all institutions.
Montana Beef In Schools 2012 What is the difference between wet-aged and dry-aged beef? What state-inspected meat processor is closest to your institution? Developed by the Montana Department of Agriculture with schools in mind, this 4-page document is a comprehensive guide to sourcing Montana raised and finished beef for your institution.
Healthy Food in Health Care; A Menu of Options. This easy-to-read publication includes 14 ideas for ways to improve nutrition and food quality in health care facilities, from designating your institution a fast food-free zone to starting a kitchen compost. The document was created by Healthy Food in Health Care, a national initiative that seeks to catalyze sustainable procurement efforts, create clinician advocates, and inspire health care institutions to become leaders in shaping a food system that supports prevention-based health care.
Farm to Cafeteria Network Producer Database
In 2013, Farm to Cafeteria Network compiled a directory of Montana producers and distributors interested in selling to institutions. Check the website for more details, or connect with us to find local food opportunities in your area.
Visit nearby farmers markets
During harvest season, stroll down to one of Montana’s many farmers markets and chat with the market manager and vendors to learn if there is interest in providing food to your institution. To find a farmers market near you, check the Montana Department of Agriculture’s directory.
Refer to a food & agriculture business directory or list
- The Farm to Cafeteria Network Producer Database contains Montana food businesses (farms, ranches, processors, and distributors) interested in selling to institutions. You can find what you need by searching the database for a desired product, location, or business.
- The Montana Department of Commerce maintains a Made in Montana Products Directory, which includes some food and agriculture businesses: www.madeinmontanausa.com/ProDir.asp
- The Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) has an Abundant Montana Directory that lists many Montana producers: www.aeromt.org/abundant
- Western Sustainability Exchange maintains a list of Certified Sustainable producers that participate in their Market Connection Program: www.westernsustainabilityexchange.org/member-producers
“I feel so much better about serving food that is grown close to home. It’s fresher, it tastes better, it’s putting money in our neighbors’ pockets instead of leaving the state, and it’s better for our patients and our environment.” — Jessica Williams, Foodservice Manager Livingston Healthcare Center
Contact national and regional distributors
Both Sysco and Foodservices of America (FSA) distribute to most institutions in Montana and carry a variety of Montana food products. Contact your sales representative for a list of available Montana products. There are also a few regional distributors that carry Montana food products:
- Western Montana Growers Cooperative: www.wmgcoop.com
- Charlie’s Produce: www.charliesproduce.com
- Quality Foods Distributing: www.qfdistributing.com
- Montana Fish Company: www.montanafishcompany.com
How Can I Serve Local Food Year-Round?
One of the obvious challenges of growing local food in Montana is the harsh and long winter. Despite the short growing season, there are many strategies you can employ to ensure that your Farm to Cafeteria Program serves local food twelve months out of the year.
Many local foods are available year-round
A common misperception is that local food is synonymous with fresh produce, when in reality most Montana foods are non-produce and are available all year long. These include oil, beef, lentils, barley, an assortment of dairy products, bread and pasta made with Montana wheat, and more.
Many institutions rely on frozen local products in the winter such as pureed squash, cherries, and carrots. These frozen items are as nutritious and delicious as their fresh counterparts and work great in a variety of recipes. You can explore packaging and freezing foods with staff at your institution or buy frozen items through a local processor. The Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative sells frozen items year-round: www.wmgcoop.com
Another option is to stock up in the fall on long-storage vegetables such as onions, squash, carrots, garlic, and cabbage. While these unprocessed items will require additional staff labor to prepare, the money you’ll save on these affordable raw products can off set labor costs.
“The primary challenge for us as producers and for institutions is price. I think we have to ask ourselves what it’s worth to have healthy communities, nutritious food that won’t make us sick, and clean water. If we put a value on those things, then the price of local food begins to look reasonable.” — Dean Williamson, Three Hearts Farm in Bozeman
Ten Tips for Working with Producers
1. Be aware of producers’ schedules when you set up appointments and meetings
During the growing season, try contacting farmers and ranchers early or late in the day when they are less likely to be outside working. Use farmers Markets as an opportunity to make contacts and establish relationships. For long term planning about products you seek, hold winter meetings when farmers are less busy, giving them lead time to plant what you want.
2. Make time for in-person visits
Demonstrate your commitment and interest by visiting farms and ranches to learn first-hand about growing practices, availability and pricing issues. Invite producers to dine in your facility or to participate in special events so they can learn about your operation and get more involved.
3. Request samples
When first meeting an interested farmer or rancher, request product samples that will allow him or her to showcase product quality and give you the opportunity to see if it will meet your needs.
4. Develop a purchasing plan that allows you to start small
Communicate with producers about your purchasing needs and work together to develop a purchasing plan that will allow you to increase purchases in the future if you are satisfied with the product. Also be sure to specify packaging and farm liability insurance requirements early and commit to a delivery schedule.
5. Develop a list of when and how much product you order
This allows producers to integrate your ordering needs into their annual operation plans.
6. Allow for some flexibility in your menus
Putting “local fresh seasonal vegetable” on your menu allows you leeway in adapting to inevitable fluctuations in fresh sourcing local products.
7. Develop a pay schedule that works for both parties
Many institutions are unable to provide payment immediately upon delivery, something producers may be unaccustomed to. Remember to communicate your pay schedule upfront.
8. Look for producers who go the extra step in working with you, and also go the extra step for them
You’re both absurdly busy, making the “extra step” hard sometimes, but small gestures go a long way in building lasting partnerships.
9. Ask producers for a weekly product availability sheet during the growing season
This current information, including quantity, variety, and price lists, will help you make the best purchasing decisions.
10. Keep open communication with producers
As you build relationships with local producers, communicate clear expectations as well as honest feedback. Producers will be happy to hear positive reactions to their products as well as suggestions for how they can better meet your needs. You can also update producers on how you are using their products, share press coverage or community outreach activities, and invite their participation in relevant events.
Adapted from: “Vermont Farm to School: A Guide for Using Local Foods in Schools.” Developed by Vermont FEED: Food Education Every Day, a partnership of Food Works, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFAVT), and Sherlburne Farms. January 2007.
Every institution has different requirements for vendor contracts and purchasing agreements. If you are designing a new contract with a local vendor, here are some items you’ll want to include in the agreement:
- The total estimated volume of each item to be delivered
- Item specifications: grade (if applicable), variety, size, etc.
- Amount and price of standing order items
- Delivery schedule: time of day, frequency, and location
- Packing requirements: standard box, grade, loose pack, bulk, etc.
- Post-harvest handling practices: is the product pre-cooled? How clean should the product be?
- Cost per unit, payment terms, payment process
- Names and phone numbers of the contacts responsible for ordering and billing
Direct Reference: “Vermont Farm to School: A Guide for Using Local Foods in Schools.” Developed by Vermont FEED: Food Education Every Day, a partnership of Food Works, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFAVT), and Sherlburne Farms. January 2007.
Marketing Your Farm to Cafeteria Program
A Note on Marketing and Media
Marketing and media attention are central in getting recognition for your efforts and can help galvanize administrative buy-in.
Farm to Cafeteria is a challenging endeavor, and it is important to have your institution’s customers, administration, and broader community recognize your work and the benefits that come from purchasing locally. There are many ways to highlight the local products that you are using, including:
A Montana Meal Day, local food taste tests, and other food-centered events are not only a great way to get a Farm to Cafeteria program started, they also attract attention that will help you build support for the program.
Promotional and Educational Materials
You can advertise your Farm to Cafeteria program and simultaneously educate the institution’s customers about local food efforts via signs, pamphlets, website text, and more. Try creating a display in a high traffic area that is regularly updated with information about featured farms and products. You could also include “fun farm facts” on your menu and highlight your institution’s partnerships with local farms on your institution’s website. Don’t be shy about showcasing your efforts; people want to know!
Press Releases, News Articles, and Newsletters
Involve the media by using press releases to announce local food events or by inviting your local newspaper or radio station to do a story on your Farm to Cafeteria program. To keep employees informed of your local food program, write an article for your institution’s newsletter or send periodic staff emails with updates. This will spur employee support and also earn your cafeteria new customers.
Garnering Support from Administration and Foodservice Staff
“Schools are at the heart of many Montana communities, and it only seems right that students should be fed the high quality food that Montanans work so hard to produce. By supporting local agriculture and ranching we may be helping to preserve the pastoral beauty and satisfying lifestyle that makes Montana such a great place to live.” — Jenny Montague, School Foodservice Director, Kalispell Public Schools
There are a variety of people you’ll want to involve when starting a Farm to Cafeteria program and you’ll want to be as inclusive as possible in your efforts so as not to deter anyone who may be a hidden resource. It is especially important to engage administrators and foodservice staff members in as many aspects of the Farm to Cafeteria program as possible because without their support, the initiative won’t reach its potential.
Foodservice staff members are critical to have on board as they’ll be preparing and serving the local food items. To optimize their involvement, you’ll need to invest some time on additional staff meetings and trainings. Some effective ideas used by other institutions include farm tours to connect staff with local producers, culinary training specific to working with whole raw products, and nutrition workshops that explain the benefits of incorporating healthier, local foods into meals.
To galvanize support from your institution’s administration, start by presenting your idea to the principal, president, or executive director and by asking who else might be important to involve. Next, hold an informational meeting about the goals and potential plans for the Farm to Cafeteria program. Build in opportunities for co-workers and community members to help shape the program. The more people you can get involved, the more people you’ll ultimately reach.
Informational Meeting Ideas
Here are some key points you may want to address in an informational meeting when seeking support from your institution:
- Outline the proposed program by describing short-term and long-term goals and expected outcomes. Is there a specific local purchasing percentage you’d like to reach within a set time frame? Do you expect meal participation to increase? How will education and outreach strengthen the program?
- Bring a success story about a program at an institution that is similar to your own, and/or share your own successes with purchasing locally thus far.
- Persuade with numbers by doing minimal research. How many acres of farmland are in your area? What is the obesity rate? How many local jobs depend on agriculture? If you are working with decision-makers who are also responsible for the overall fiscal health of your organization, you will want to be well-prepared to talk about how much additional cost, if any, you might incur as a result of the program. Highlighting examples where the program will actually general extra revenue or savings will be one of the most convincing points you can make. Minimal research can go a long way in educating about the importance of healthy, local food.
- Highlight current support for your and similar programs. Administrators are more likely to buy into an idea that already has support from other individuals and groups. Bring a few co-workers, community members, or government officials to the meeting who are passionate about the benefits of Farm to Cafeteria, or simply mention examples of national and state support. This can help get the buy-in you want.
Food Safety Considerations
As a foodservice professional, you already know the tremendous importance of proper food safety and handling practices. Still, when buying food from a new source it can be helpful to brush up on food safety requirements, especially as the proposed rules of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed in 2011, are adopted by the Food and Drug Administration. To get current updates on the Food Safety Modernization Act, check the FDA website: www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA. You can also contact your county health officer or sanitarian, or Chief Attorney of the Montana Department of Agriculture Cort Jensen at email@example.com or (406) 444-5402 if you have additional questions.
For schools, the USDA Farm to School Food Safety FAQ’s is another great resource,
At the time of this writing, there are no formal inspections or regulations required for fresh, whole, uncut, raw produce sold to Montana institutions. To mitigate potential food safety issues, however, you should ask producers if they have an on-farm food safety plan. While your institution may not require producers to have such a plan, this can help guide your local purchasing. You may also ask producers if they follow Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) guidelines. While your institution likely doesn’t require farmers to be GAP/GHP certified, knowing that they have a GAP plan will add to their food safety credibility.
We also recommend using Iowa State University’s “Checklist for Retail Purchasing of Local Produce” or a similar buyer’s checklist that addresses on-farm food safety like irrigation sources and types of manure utilized.
Processed food items, including minimally processed such as sliced, chopped or peeled, must follow food safety and licensure requirements established by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS). As a result, when buying processed products you must ensure the local vendor is a licensed food business.
With a state full of cattle, it only makes sense to buy local beef! Montana institutions can purchase beef directly from any licensed rancher as well as from meat plants that are state or federally-inspected. When buying from a processor, ask where the meat is from to verify that it was raised and finished in Montana (this isn’t always the case). Animals slaughtered and processed in a “custom exempt” plant may not be sold to institutions. Montana has 9 state Department of Livestock inspected plants and 5 USDA-inspected plants.
Institutions can purchase local chicken, turkey, and other poultry from growers that are licensed by the Montana Department of Livestock or the USDA. Th is includes growers licensed by the state under USDA’s federal 1,000 or 20,000‐bird poultry grower exemption (meaning they are exempt from an on-site, bird-by-bird inspection but that they have met licensing requirements). Institutions may also buy from state-inspected poultry plants, though currently the New Rockport Hutterite Colony near Choteau is the only such facility in Montana.
As with any dairy items served in institutions, local dairy products also must be pasteurized at a dairy-processing facility licensed by the Milk and Egg Bureau.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) requires egg vendors to be licensed by the Milk and Egg Bureau. However, according to food safety law MCA 81-20-201, producers that sell fewer than 25 cases (about 750 dozen eggs) a month over a year are exempt from grading requirements, though they must have a vendor’s license and the eggs must be reasonably clean.
For additional questions about meat and poultry, contact the Meat and Poultry Bureau at (406) 444-5202. For questions about eggs and dairy, contact the Milk and Egg Bureau at (406) 444-9761.
There are a variety of types of policies to consider when developing your Farm to Cafeteria program, most of them put in place to support local food purchasing. Knowing and understanding any local, state, or federal policies/regulations regarding local food purchases is essential, as is developing your institution’s own policies to promote Farm to Cafeteria.
State and Federal Policy
Montana Food to Institutions
In 2007 the Montana State Legislature passed the Montana Food to Institutions bill, which provides institutions an optional exemption to the Montana Procurement Law when purchasing local food. According to this law, institutional food buyers can purchase local food products even when they don’t represent the lowest bid in the bidding process, as long as it doesn’t increase overall expenditures on food. Th is gives buyers the opportunity to take other factors, like where and how food products were produced, into consideration instead of being limited by price points. Read a summary of the law.
Federal Geographic Preference
The 2008 Farm Bill revisions granted institutions operating Child Nutrition Programs the option to utilize geographic preference when purchasing locally-produced agricultural products. This allows school food directors to include geographic preference specifications (i.e., produced within X miles; harvested within X days; etc.) on Invitation for Bids (IFB) and also gives them authority to prioritize “local” over “lowest bid” in the bidding process.
For a concise explanation about how to utilize geographic preference, including information about foods that qualify and guidelines around small purchase thresholds, refer to “Federal Geographic Preference Guidelines,” developed by National Farm to School Network.
Learn more about this and other Farm to School Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) policies on the USDA website: www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/f2s/f2spolicy.htm
Local Food Purchasing Policy
Developing a Local Food Purchasing Policy for your institution is an effective way to determine short-term and long-term local purchasing goals and guiding principles for your Farm to Cafeteria program. A well-developed local or sustainable food purchasing policy will increase awareness and support of the program among various stakeholders and define the institutional values that will guide local and responsible purchasing.
There are many examples and resources for developing a local food purchasing policy so there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Our favorite resource is A Guide to Developing a Sustainable Food Purchasing Policy, a Food Alliance publication that walks you through the various questions to consider when developing your institution’s own purchasing policy. The guide is available at: http://food-hub.org/files/resources/SustainableFoodPolicyGuide.pdf.
A Wellness Policy outlines nutrition and exercise goals for the staff , students, residents, or others at an institution. When developing a new wellness policy or modifying an old one, you can include Farm to Cafeteria priorities by highlighting goals around school/community gardens and access to healthy, local food.
Your wellness policy might include:
- Goals for nutrition education, physical activity and other institution-based activities that are designed to promote patient/inmate/student/customer wellness
- Nutrition guidelines defined by the institution for all foods served, with the objective of promoting patient/inmate/student/customer health as well as local purchasing
- A plan for measuring implementation of the local wellness policy, including designation of one or more persons within the local agency to ensure that the institution fulfills the wellness policy
- Community involvement goals, including local organizations, parents, students, and other representatives, in the development of the wellness policy
Adapted from: “Five Required Components of School Wellness Policy” as designated by Public Law 108-265, the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004.
Montana Team Nutrition developed a School Wellness Policy Implementation Guide that contains useful information for other types of institutions as well. The resource is available at: