Alachua County schools are working to increase accessibility of local food for students
The Good Food Purchasing Program has helped Alachua County Public Schools invest nearly $1 million to increase nutrition in school cafeterias.
That figure includes a $107,297 direct investment to local family-owned farms that helped raise nutritional standards at public schools 20% beyond the program's baseline, said Kelli Brew, the county coordinator for Good Food Purchasing.
Brew presented the first public analysis of the public schools’ baseline summary at the first Joint City-County Food System Policy Board meeting of the year, which took place Wednesday night. Alachua County is the first county in the Southeast to take part in the program, Brew said.
Alachua County Commissioner Anna Prizzia said the goal of Good Food Purchasing is to create a set of standards around food purchasing for public institutions. Nutrition is one of five categories that include local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce and animal welfare, for which the county is collaborating with Good Food Purchasing.
Prior to the pandemic, data showed that the county was purchasing an average of 8.7% of local food. But between April to July 2020, a 12% increase in local food purchases, largely accounted for by the farmers who provided healthy produce throughout the pandemic, resulted in increased scores in both the environmental sustainability and value workforce categories, Brew said.
Prizzia said the county is working with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office to create a baseline report for the local jails as well.
“The hope is that we can get more public institutions in the community to sign on,” Prizzia said. “That way, while we may not all have the same goals, we can all be working along the same set of baseline metrics.”
In addition to the Good Food Purchasing Program, the board provided updates on its plans for a foodshed map, a community grocery project and the Healthy Corner Store Initiative.
Gainesville City Commissioner Reina Saco said each program is intended to improve food security, safety and accessibility for residents while bolstering the local economy.
Sean McLendon, economic development and food systems manager for the office of sustainability, said he is currently working with the county and the University of Florida’s GeoPlan Center to develop a database of food system components, including food production sites, retailers, processing facilities and assistance sites, that will be included on a foodshed map.
The map, which is currently in the beta stages and is expected to be released to the public within the next month, will allow producers to mark their locations so residents can determine where their most accessible food sources are located, he said.
“This information will help us to better plan zoning, approval of projects and development of neighborhoods and bus routes if we know where necessities like food producers are,” Saco said.
The Corner Store Initiative, started by The Food Trust in 2004, is another program the subcommittee is planning to implement in the coming months to improve the nutritional options provided at bodegas and gas station convenience stores, particularly for residents living in neighborhoods underserved by traditional grocery stores, Prizzia said.
Diedre Houchen, the county’s equity and community outreach director, said the program will start by establishing a working group of store owners to take part in a pilot process.
“Our plan is to work with this group to determine barriers, benefits and incentives that store owners would want to be able to see this project through and from that craft a more robust program,” Prizzia said.
For the pilot program, which will take place in September, the working group will consist of store owners from East Gainesville, Prizzia said.
“We’ve been working on ways to improve food security in the community for a long time,” Prizzia said. “But 10 or 15 years ago, we weren’t necessarily talking about major ways to create the security we now understand is necessary for a working food system.”
For Saco, the pandemic has highlighted the issue of food insecurity in the community.
“It made us realize the very tenuous access to food that a lot of our neighbors had,” Saco said. “It was a very real problem; not just a chart in a report, but we knew real people who in the last year just didn’t have access to food. And from that, we knew how delicate of an agenda tower we would be working with.”