Sarah E. Murphy 2012-11-27 21:58:34
Farm-to-school programs are as varied as a cornucopia stuffed with fresh produce. Reflections from last summer’s National Farm to Cafeteria Conference provide tips and inspiration for getting started—or stepping up your efforts. Your role as a school nutrition professional offers a number of legitimate “thrills,” especially those related to the light in a child’s eyes in response to a meal that will fill a hungry belly or your warm welcoming smile. It’s also a genuine delight to watch a child try, and enjoy, a tasty, new-to-them food. But that buzz is bound to be even bigger—for both you and your students—if kids have had the opportunity to see that food (especially produce items) from a seed into a plant into a harvested item that appears on their plate! Buying locally-produced foods reaps many benefits for your school nutrition program, the students and your community. Tying your cafeteria offerings into a farm-to-school program with an education component offers even more! If you’ve been contemplating beginning such a program in your own operation or are looking for ideas to keep an existing program running smoothly and creatively, you’ve come to the right place! What follows in this article are suggestions and tips gathered from the 6th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Burlington, Vt., in August 2012, as well as from operators who have introduced successful farm-to-school efforts in their districts. Conference attendees were treated to a comprehensive overview of the rewards—and challenges—related to starting, operating and expanding a farm-to-school program. But the experiences and recommendations shared by experienced veterans have value and can be applied to virtually any level of farm-to-school project. Whether you currently serve up lunch trays filled with local produce or conduct only the occasional harvest-of-the-month promotion, consider the creative and practical advice offered in the pages that follow. Who knows? You might just find your next big success comes from an idea from one of your colleagues! Planting the Seeds But before we launch into some words of wisdom from school nutrition professionals who have implemented farm-to-school programs, let’s take a look at the popularity of these programs: An impressive 12,000 schools in all 50 states are participating in farm-to-school programs. These efforts involve an estimated 5.7 million kids, reports Anupama Joshi, executive director and co-founder of the National Farm to School Network. Why does the popularity of such programs continue to gather momentum from one year to the next? Consider the benefits they offer schools and communities! According to the National Farm to School Network, these projects: • strengthen children’s and communities’ knowledge about, and attitudes toward, agriculture, food, nutrition and the environment; • increase children’s participation in the school meals program and consumption of fruits and vegetables, thereby improving childhood nutrition, reducing hunger and preventing obesity and obesity-related diseases; • benefit school food budgets, after start-up, if planning and menu choices are made consistent with seasonal availability of fresh and minimally processed whole foods; • support economic development across numerous sectors and promote job creation; • increase market opportunities for farmers, fishers, ranchers, food processors and food manufacturers; and • decrease the distance between producers and consumers, thus promoting food security while reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and reliance on oil. Growing a Program Being aware of the benefits is one thing. Putting farm-to-school initiatives in place is another. Teamwork, communication and flexibility are essential. Three operators share their experiences on how farm-to-school has worked for them: Doug Davis, SNS, director of foodservice for the Burlington (Vt.) School Food Project; Jim Hill, SNS, child nutrition director for Jackson County Schools, Sylva, N.C.; and Jennifer LeBarre, director of nutrition services, Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District. An important first step is to assess what you are already doing; you may be sourcing products locally and not even know it! Talk to your supplier. If you are already serving locally-produced menu items, be sure you highlight this fact, promoting it to your community. The next step is to engage a wide variety of stakeholders and seek community involvement and support. Also, keep on the lookout for ways to take advantage of opportunities for financial support, such as Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program grants. Don’t underestimate the ways that the incorporation of more whole, fresh produce might affect your operational systems and efficiencies. For example, your team may need to build in extra time to cut and portion certain fruits and veggies. New equipment—special knives, cutting boards, choppers/sectionizers, carts and storage containers— may be needed to facilitate your plans. Check with distributors and farmers—what options can they offer to supply you with products in the forms you need to minimize your labor time and cost? Is there a local processor who can join your partnership? It’s important to recognize that there are always trade-offs. You might find yourself adding a processed item to your menus in order to accommodate the time required to offer more fresh produce. In Burlington, Doug Davis and his team used to prep their own peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. It could take a full day’s work by two employees to make 300-400 sandwiches. As his farm-to-school efforts grew, Davis needed that labor for cutting up fruits and vegetables and wound up adding Uncrustables ® from J.M. Smucker to his bid list. Ensure that everyone is speaking the same language. For example, food safety can mean one thing for you as a buyer and something else entirely for the grower. Also, farmers often sell in large quantities like “flats,” while most school nutrition operations are looking for a yield in “portions.” You need to make certain that your needs are clear and communicated effectively. Think through all of the processing that will need to take place from delivery truck to student trays. You might want to invite local farmers to “work” in the school kitchen for a day to understand the demands of your niche market! A Row to Hoe Is a school garden under consideration as part of your operation’s farm-to-school efforts? Stephanie Van Parys, executive director of The Wylde Center in Decatur, Ga., offers some food for thought. First, she suggests identifying any teachers who may already be doing such projects on a small scale. Maybe they have an individual garden bed set up underneath the classroom window. Teachers make potentially great partners in a farm-to-school project; they can handle the education-related tasks, while you can follow up their classroom teaching by putting harvests on kids’ trays. Of course, it’s highly unrealistic to expect most school gardens to be able to produce enough food to serve and menu in the cafeteria. In Decatur, Ga., school gardens are used for taste tests and other educational activities, says Van Parys. And it still pays off: “If they grow it, they’ll eat it…and they’ll go home and ask for it,” she reports—and they will eat it at home and in your school meal program. Ready to dive in to the planning stages of a farm-to-school program of your own or to take your program to the next level? With the new meal pattern changes and increased requirements for the amounts of fruits and vegetables served, now is an ideal time to develop a farm-to-school program that could help you meet that mandate. But don’t get too far ahead of yourself! Take small steps to reach your goal. No matter what level of program you are trying to implement, be sure you talk it up to the students and get them excited! Shine a positive light on your program by sharing the great things you are doing with the whole community! Sarah Murphy is SNA’s public affairs associate. Photographs taken at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference and by iStockphoto/ © Getty Images. Doug Davis, SNS Director of Food Service Burlington (Vt.) School Food Project • “Farm-to-school for us started with a desire to get kids to eat better food, not necessarily to buy locally,” Davis says. The school nutrition team serves something local every single day. Now, high school students have seen local produce, meat and cheese on the school menu since kindergarten. It’s changed the food culture for students throughout the district. • Events like Junior Iron Chef Vermont, a statewide competition that gives students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience preparing and cooking nutritious, farm-fresh foods, have been a part of the community for years. [Editors’ Note: For more about how Davis and his team organize this competition, see “Kids’ Cooking Takes Center Stage,” February 2012.] • Consider processing fresh local produce for year-round use in recipes and menus. Vermont may have a very short growing season, but Davis takes full advantage of opportunities to extend the life of harvested items. For example, zucchini and carrots may be shredded, stored and frozen for use in quick bread recipes throughout the year. • The Burlington school nutrition operation has been able to work with area farmers to produce items that meet their specifications for preparation and service. For example, carrots are harvested at the size and portion that is needed for service in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Davis also negotiates for reasonable pricing. • Davis’s Advice: “Work to try and change the paradigm and what people think school lunch is supposed to look like. Change slowly and deliberately. Don’t make changes too quickly. The main goal is to feed hungry kids, not buy local foods. If they aren’t consuming the food, we haven’t fulfilled our mission. [Be aware that menu changes may] take some time for the kids, farmers, staff and teachers to buy in.” Jim Hill, SNS Child Nutrition Director Jackson County Schools, Sylva, N.C. • Students in Jackson County enjoy the Mustang Salads, which have been especially popular, because they know that some of their friends are growing the lettuce used in the dish. Students in agriculture classes use a greenhouse to grow lettuce hydroponically, with water and no soil to help with some of the food safety issues. [Editors’ Note: For more about this project, see “Lettuce All Learn Together,” NewsBites, September 2011.] • Work through the appropriate channels to get your farm-to-school program up and running. For example, communicate with your local health department, representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and members of your school administration. Be sure to encourage school gardens as a teaching tool and follow through by menuing items that are harvested. • Hill estimates that 30% of the school menu is comprised of farm-to-school products in the fall and spring. In addition, he receives a large number of apples throughout the winter. • He advises a gradual transformation. All of his staff are positive about the program, for several reasons. Among these, staff realize that supporting local produce means supporting local jobs, including for their own family members. • Hill’s Advice: Depending on your unique vendor relationships, it might be more appropriate to work through your distributor, rather than directly with area farmers. That’s Hill’s approach, and he encourages colleagues around the country to be collaborative with vendors about their needs. His suppliers know he would rather pay a little bit more for local, seasonal produce—and that he will stay flexible about his menu to take advantage of newly available items. For example, a supplier may get word that a local farmer has a bump in strawberries, and then Hill will make changes in the menu to accommodate that surplus. Jennifer LeBarre Director of Nutrition Services Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District • Like Jim Hill in North Carolina, LeBarre has had success working with her current distributors to increase the volume of local produce available, as opposed to buying directly from farms. Farm-to-school items make up some 10-15% of LeBarre’s menu. • She emphasizes the point that community involvement is essential. Her school nutrition team had a series of community engagement meetings to determine the priorities for the district’s farm-to-school program. • LeBarre has opened produce markets at 15 schools in partnership with the East Bay Asian Youth Center. At these markets, 85% of the produce is organic and local. • LeBarre’s Advice: “Every district’s approach to farm-to-school is going to be different. Don’t think you have to buy directly from farmers to have a successful farm-to-school program. Find out what works best for you, start slow and expand.” Farm-to-School Resources National Farm to School Network www.farmtoschool.org Decatur Farm to School www.decaturfarmtoschool.org Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/ffvp Junior Iron Chef Vermont www.jrironchefvt.org 6th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference http://farmtocafeteriaconference.org/6
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