Photo credit: Équiterre

Équiterre, the provincial coordinator of the Farm to School program in Quebec, mobilizes school communities to adopt best practices that promote sustainable (healthy, local and eco-responsible) food and to set targets for purchasing Quebec food.

During their February 24, 2021 webinar, Équiterre’s three facilitators presented different strategies for starting and sustaining local procurement efforts in schools.

Équiterre coordinates and implements Quebec’s Farm to School movement. The organization mobilizes school communities to implement Farm to School programs and supports many of them directly. As part of the “Farm to School: Canada Digs In!” initiative, 14 Quebec elementary and secondary schools received funding that allows them to engage students in growing, harvesting, preparing, processing and serving healthy, local and eco-responsible food in a regularly offered salad bar.

Murielle Vrins introduced the February 24 webinar by highlighting the many benefits that sustainable food procurement approaches implemented in schools have on health, the local economy, the environment and education. These approaches also benefit school teams because they enhance their initiatives. They are very satisfying for students and members of the school community and they foster a greater sense of belonging to the school.

Photo credit: AgrÉcoles

Although Quebec has a variety of food service approaches (self-management, contract management, complementary programs), each approach can supply sustainable food. Practical fact sheets (in French only) have been developed on this topic by Équiterre, in collaboration with Aliments du Québec au menu and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Quebec (MAPAQ) to inspire and mobilize Quebec institutions to develop a healthy, local and eco-responsible food supply. These practical sheets, which have been designed for a variety of institutional settings, propose detailed processes to follow based on the experience of leading institutions.

COVID-19 has often been seen as a hindrance to advancing local procurement initiatives. However, the COVID context can facilitate food procurement implementation, as reduced activities can offer schools an opportunity to reinvent themselves or embark on new projects. This was the case for Louis-de-France elementary school in Trois-Rivières’ new project “La Conserverie”, which enables children and youth to learn about processing local foods and canning. The issues of local food purchasing and food self-sufficiency are also more topical than ever.

Starting a local food procurement process in your school

During the webinar Clara Canac and Dominique Lacroix presented the different steps to get set up for local purchasing.

  1. It’s important to create a committee so that the process doesn’t fall on one person’s shoulders! It’s essential to bring together the school board, the members of the environmental committees and community partners and to assign each person a specific role and tasks, and to develop a timetable.
  2. After that, needs and priorities need to be defined, for example based on the school’s values (including food and sustainable development policies). These values must also be aligned with the interests of students and parents. Connect with them and ask them what their priorities are: freshness, seasonality, etc.
  3. It is also important to know what food is already provided to your school community. Make an inventory of your current suppliers, potential lists of suppliers approved by your school service center and also existing partnerships for student educational activities (for farm visits, theme days, fundraising campaigns, etc.). Knowing what you already have will allow you to focus on areas for improvement.
  4. You then need to determine what purchasing criteria to prioritize, such as the type of company, the variety of foods to offer, the flexibility of the service, or the price. It is important to prioritize these criteria in order to be able to make choices.
  5. To foster a resilient purchasing system, a school needs to diversify its suppliers. You can get in direct contact with producers and market gardeners in your region. If your school has participated in Quebec’s Schools Take Root fundraising campaign, Clara’s tip is to see if the farmer who delivered your fall order could supply you! You can also turn to distributors (supermarkets and grocery stores, food distributors, or school caterers and dealerships) and look for products from your area or ask your distributors to identify their sources. Finally, don’t forget that you can grow your own local food in a school or community garden, while involving children and youth!
  6. Show your future partners the many benefits they will get from investing in your project, such as forging ties with the community, contributing to the health of students, or gaining visibility: it’s the best way to convince them!
Photo credit: Équiterre
Sustaining your Approach

Clara Canac and Dominique Lacroix presented three strategies to sustain your approach.

  1. The first is to enhance the relationship with your supplier or distributor by going beyond just your business relationship. The key to a long-term partnership is to cultivate a relationship of respect and trust. And so you need to put in place the communication and follow-up mechanisms necessary for a healthy collaboration. Dominique’s trick is to communicate by phone and not by email to strengthen the connection with your community partner.
  2. The second strategy is to make your procurement approach part of the school’s educational project. Many educational concepts can be linked to healthy, local and eco-responsible food. They can easily be brought to the classroom while meeting curriculum requirements. And they can also be the subject of school outings, or a gardening or cooking activity. Équiterre’s website contains many relevant resources on this subject, such as the À la soupe! educational kit, A Recipe for Successful Cooking Workshops, and recipe sheets for Quebec fruits and vegetables (in French and English). In today’s context, check out the Coalition for Healthy School Food’s Guide to Serving Healthy School Food During COVID-19.
  3. Finally, the third strategy for sustainability is to participate in a recognition or support program to frame your approach and support your efforts, such as the Aliments du Québec au menu recognition program. In partnership with Équiterre and Quebec’s  Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Aliments du Québec has developed the “Aliments du Québec au menu” recognition program that offers support, visibility, mobilization of the entire food service team and many other benefits. This recognition allows communities to be supported in their process of purchasing local food. The recognition can be done by meal (the easiest and most flexible solution, which can be practical to start the process) or by supply. Under the latter option, the food service provider must track all the food purchased for one year. The supply is recognized as local if the share of Quebec foods represents 50% or more of the total annual budget. It is possible to obtain recognition for a percentage less than 50%: the goal is then to measure the initial level of local procurement from the institution and to support it to increase the share.

The step of quantifying food purchases is very encouraging. It allows us to better understand the food we are offering and to set targets to guide our actions and progress at our own pace. Often, institutions are surprised to find that a large part of their supply is already local!

In closing, these local procurement approaches may require you to shift your habits, invest more time or increase your number of suppliers. Nevertheless, this investment is worth it in the long run! Not only will this approach let you offer your best to your students and the school community, but you will send a positive image about your services, you will stand out and it will create links between food and the health of children and youth, communities and the planet.

You can listen to the entire webinar (one hour long) or find all of the resources in the presentation slides.

Webinar Recap

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Photo credit: École Saint-Denis

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