Exploring Regional Produce Procurement in Detroit Public Schools

Exploring Regional Produce Procurement in Detroit Public Schools (pdf)

In September 2013, School Food FOCUS (FOCUS) partnered with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service on a cooperative agreement to enhance the regional produce procurement capacity of Detroit Public Schools (DPS). The goals of the project were to create benefits to producers through new market opportunities and to schoolchildren through increased access to healthy fresh foods. 

To achieve these goals, FOCUS was charged with both researching current DPS channels for regional produce and identifying ways to enhance the district’s capacity to procure fruits and vegetables regionally. FOCUS worked closely with DPS as well as Detroit Eastern Market (DEM) and DPS produce suppliers during 2014. DPS, FOCUS, and DEM decided to target winter squash for increased regional procurement in fall of 2014. FOCUS also researched and documented a supply chain bringing Michigan-grown blueberries into DPS as an example of a mutually beneficial farmer-district relationship.

DPS currently spends 10 percent of its produce dollars on products grown in Michigan. This is well above the 2 percent average across the districts in the Upper Midwest for which FOCUS collects data on regional spending and evidence of the district’s commitment to sourcing locally. As with these other large districts in the region, the current context of the food system can make it challenging for DPS to access regional products in an efficient way. DPS relies on a broadline distributor which sources products from a range of manufacturers, processors, and other distributors. Given the multiple businesses through which foods change hands, Michigan farmers are often unaware when their product is sold into DPS, and DPS itself has limited knowledge about the geographic origins of the produce. Lack of knowledge about produce origins, either retroactively or in advance of purchase, makes it difficult for the district to track and prioritize purchasing regionally. Other issues found to hamper regional procurement capacity include logistical complexities, produce availability, and institutional barriers to change within supply chain firms.

Addressing these potential constraints requires commitment by the district, its partners, and its suppliers. Moving to new practices that may involve more work without an obvious payoff can be a hard sell for businesses or school districts for whom the bottom line is always a consideration. Where DPS has seen success, it is a direct result of its commitment to regional purchasing and other salient factors: selecting the right products, finding alignment between supply chain partners, and clear communication and a collaborative approach among those involved.

DPS’ capacity for regional procurement could be further expanded in several ways, including support for improving kitchen facilities, regional infrastructure to increase produce supply year round, and better communication between districts and with growers about opportunities to sell to schools and how to make them work. The successes and obstacles at DPS provide lessons for other collaborations, which, though complex, offer potential benefits for all involved.

Publication Date
Amy Rosenthal, School Food FOCUS; JoAnne Berkenkamp, Tomorrow’s Table

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