True or false: It’s possible to grow your wholesale marketing now and cultivate a new generation of customers at the same time. The answer is “true”—if you tap into one of the many farm-to-school initiatives cropping up to get local produce into school cafeterias across the country.

The farm-to-school idea has been around for nearly a decade, but has gained momentum in recent years as food service directors have become more receptive to buying local, and more state governments are encouraging, or mandating, that schools buy local.

There are an estimated 2,000 farm-to-school programs in 40 states, according to the National Farm to School Network Web site (www.farmtoschool.org), with some 8,776 schools participating.

Traditionally, school food service programs were difficult to sell to. They bought a limited variety of produce in bulk from the lowest bidder. Local growers had a hard time meeting the specifications and competing with large distributors. Seasonality has also been an issue for northern growers.

According to a report by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, school food service operations have changed what and how they buy in recent years, which has opened doors for local growers. Add to that the fact that a growing number of states have started programs to encourage school systems to buy local and to facilitate connections between food service buyers and local farms. In some states, school systems are required by law to give preference to local vendors.

That report, “How Local Farmers and School Food Service Buyers Are Building Alliances,” covers what food service directors need and want, what influences them when choosing a vendor, potential barriers for small farmers to enter the school food service market, recommended strategies for small farmers, case studies and how government programs can help.

Seasonality, along with volume and delivery issues, remain among the barriers that local growers face in any kind of wholesale market, and school food service is no exception. Farm-to-school programs are finding ways to overcome these and other obstacles and their efforts appear to be working.

The National Farm to School Network Web site offers additional publications, a calendar of events and online forums where users can discuss relevant topics and issues. One forum post offers tips to food service directors for addressing the seasonality issues, such as working with farmers to plant early and late-season crops, offering different varieties of produce throughout the school year, and buying local value-added products like applesauce, cheeses and yogurt.

Other farm-to-school reports and case studies are available on the Pennsylvania State University Web site at http://agmarketing.extension.psu.edu/Wholesale.html. Programs from California to Massachusetts to Florida are profiled.

Farm-to-school programs in 12 states have been able to use an existing Department of Defense program that purchases fresh fruits and vegetables for schools and other institutions to buy from local farms. Through DoD Fresh, food service directors can use federal commodity dollars to purchase local produce from DoD buyers.

Not only are participating schools serving better meals, they are tying those meals to lessons about nutrition and food production. Students are trying foods they may not get at home and certainly hadn’t gotten in school before. Schools organize farm tours and farmer visits to the school. Some also tie in lessons about recycling and start school gardens.

The immediate benefits of farm-to-school programs are more nutritious food for the kids and diversified markets for growers. Beyond that, through their children, parents will also be educated about the benefits of buying local and perhaps change their shopping habits.

The real success of farm-to-school programs will be if those kids grow into healthier-eating adults who are educated about local food production and who demand local products. For now, kids are just enjoying better food at school and farmers are enjoying the business.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.