By Arianne Corbett, RD 2013-06-11 22:25:03
Making a Fresh Start One district finds a way to reenergize both its breakfast and farm-to-school programs. We needed a fresh start, an injection to our farm-to-school program,” recalls Shannon Stember, assistant director of nutrition services for Portland (Ore.) Public Schools (PPS). After five years dedicated to establishing a successful farm-to-school initiative, the district’s Nutrition Services team sought ideas for extra momentum that would keep the program moving forward. What would be different? How could they build on established relationships and procedures? They found the answer when they narrowed their focus, setting their sights specifically on school breakfast. Portland’s school meals operation was awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to School Grant to fund an innovative new program: Fresh Start Farm to School Breakfast. To earn the $100,000 grant, the team set some lofty goals for Fresh Start: increase local purchasing, develop regionally sourced breakfast products meeting the new federal requirements and connect low-income students with their regional food system. It’s a tall order—but Portland’s extensive list of achievements with farm-to-school partnerships makes these goals well within reach. Building Upon a Solid Foundation In recent years, the city of Portland has earned increased national attention as an emerging local food dining destination. In a town filled with lauded restaurants, numerous sustainable, organic farms and a wealth of farmers markets, serving up fresh local food has become a big deal in all areas of foodservice. Stepping up and refusing to be left behind, the PPS Nutrition Services team began a farm-to-school program in SY 2005-06 with a single cafeteria pilot promoting a local Vegetable of the Week. By 2007, the cafeteria pilot had expanded to a district-wide Harvest of the Month program, and the team had begun to build relationships with local farmers, along with critical partnerships with such organizations as Ecotrust, Growing Gardens and the Oregon Nutrition Education Program. Another PPS promotion, Local Flavors, takes the operation’s farm-to-school commitment one step further. In addition to menuing farm-fresh produce, the school meals team works with local companies to develop, source and procure certain further-processed products. “In 2004, we eliminated our central kitchen. Rather than producing goods in our own bakery or making sauces and dressings in our own kitchens, we work with local producers,” explains Stember. “We write the specs, and they provide us with high-quality products.” In fact, she adds, “If we could work with local companies and producers for products we serve all the time, we could have a greater impact on the local economy.” One of the stated mission goals of the Nutrition Services department is to “nourish the health of the community through school meals.” Their efforts in farm-to-school programs are right in line. The district’s Harvest of the Month and Local Flavors programs provide promotional local-focused lunches 26 days of the school year. And even for the bulk of the serving days, the district offers a wide array of locally sourced foods, including milk and other dairy products, bread and bakery items, fresh fruit, meat, poultry, canned fruit and frozen vegetables. By SY 2008-09, combined efforts meant PPS had increased purchases from local farmers and suppliers to 33.9% of its total food dollars. In the years that have followed, Portland has maintained local purchases in the 32-34% range. But increasing food costs, combined with other priorities and challenges (including implementation of new school meal regulations and staffing changes), have become a barrier to continued growth of the farm-to-school initiative, concedes Stember. Win-Win Opportunities Recently, Stember and her colleagues were encour- aged by various farm-to-school partners to apply for a USDA Farm to School Grant. The team recognized this could be an opportunity not only to recharge their program, but also to use farm-to-school resources as a creative option in the implementation of new breakfast meal standards. According to Deborah Kane, national director of the USDA Farm to School program, “The primary focus of the grant program is to help schools bring more local and regional products into their schools. Grants are appropriate for districts just getting started, as well as for districts who have already taken several steps down the path.” In regard to the ingeniousness of the PPS application, Kane adds, “The Portland program was very exciting for us, because it went beyond the lunch program. We are always looking for innovative strategies to bring farm to school in to other parts of the day, whether that’s breakfast, afterschool meals, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program or summer feeding.” As in many school districts, most of PPS’ farm-to-school efforts focused primarily on support of the midday meal. In addition to fresh produce, this included regionally sourced food items such as Carman Ranch grass-fed beef, Truitt Brothers vegetarian chili and Shepherd’s Grain flour used in Roadrunner whole-wheat pizza. Use of local and regional products at breakfast, however, was minimal. But with the new breakfast meal pattern scheduled for a SY 2013-14 implementation, the child nutrition team thought that the development of additional regionally sourced products—namely whole-grain items—could be the solution to multiple goals. The PPS Nutrition Services team has worked to implement a grab’n’go breakfast-after- the-bell service since 2002. Stember is passionate about the success of this service model. “We have 33 schools that are Provision 2. If all the students in the school can grab a breakfast [at stations around the school] and it’s at no charge, our participation is over 70%,” she reports. “If they have to gather in the cafeteria, we see it at 30-50%.” Stember is confident that incorporating the success of breakfast after the bell and applying the farm-to-school approach will produce a winning combination that could be reproduced all across the country. Making Local Links Over the years, the PPS Nutrition Services team has realized that to maintain a successful farm-to-school program for such a large district, it takes many dedicated staff hours to seek out growers and processors that have the capacity to provide product for a district with more than 47,000 students. “The larger you are, the more challenging it can be to find the volume you need,” Stember warns. The grant funding is helping to underwrite the salary of a registered dietitian (already on the Portland team), who will take on farm-to-school coordinator duties, including identifying farmers who can meet the quantity demand presented by Portland’s 85 school sites. The coordinator’s responsibilities also will include visiting farms, reviewing food safety plans and preparing marketing materials for the program. Stember is hoping that this aspect of the grant will lead to the development of new, productive relationships with area growers and processors and help the school meals program to achieve its “very, very ambitious goal” of increasing local purchases to more than 40%. The next key piece of the grant is to support the development of new breakfast items, specifically those which will fit into the grab’n’go service concept. “We knew there were going to be changes to breakfast, so we decided to focus some of the resources of the grant to find some new whole grain-rich items,” Stember notes. The school nutrition team is currently meeting with vendors to provide the regulatory compliance specs for items they hope can be produced regionally, including muffins, pumpkin bread, mini-pancakes and breakfast bars. “That’s the exploratory nature of this. We hope to work with vendors to develop these products and recreate them as Portland or Oregon or Multnomah County products,” says Stember with great enthusiasm. Portland’s efforts could go on to help other schools districts in the Northwest meet the upcoming breakfast regulations, as well. “We want to have students approval on these products, too,” she adds. “If they are successful, [companies] can use them with other districts.” And finally, Portland’s Fresh Start program is helping to connect low-income students with their regional food system. The program facilitates increased knowledge through school gardening, farm field trips and the integration of food and nutrition lessons with classroom curriculum. As Stember explains, “We picked three schools. They were schools with the highest [income] needs, but also [had] a little bit of a start with existing school gardens and partnerships with [the Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Service].” Funds from the grant will support a garden coordinator in each of the selected schools to enhance food system education through hands-on garden and kitchen lessons and related experiences. For example, the garden coordinators will work with community partners, including Growing Gardens and the OSU Extension, to help conduct taste tests in the cafeterias and engage families in garden activities. They also have targeted 2nd- and 3rd-grade teachers to build more buy-in with participation in the Harvest of the Month promotion and associated activities. Stember would like to see the students in those grades become “the ambassadors of farm to school.” Another exciting initiative, made possible by the grant, is the addition of new “Harvest Carts” used as point-of-service sites for grab’n’go breakfast at the three pilot schools. The carts serve a dual purpose of providing the meal, but being a marketing and information hub, as well. “We want the Harvest Carts to connect students to farm to school. They will be like movable bulletin boards,” Stember explains. The PPS Nutrition Services team also plans to use the carts to facilitate “harvest fresh” taste tests during lunch periods and even travel outside to the school gardens for activities with students. With the great potential of the carts as a marketing tool, Stember and her colleagues hope to find additional funding to purchase more of them for use at other schools throughout the district. While Fresh Start is just getting going, Stember wants to do even more to increase awareness of farm-to-school opportunities and advantages. “You can have a big district, like ours, and have people not know what we are doing with farm-to-school [initiatives],” she admits. “We want to elevate attention to our farm-to-school and Local Flavors efforts!” Words of Advice Stember recognizes that with so many competing priorities for staff time and funding, it can be a challenge to keep farm-to-school projects from getting lost in the shuffle. That’s why she’s so excited about finding synergies within other existing programs, like the district’s school breakfast program. She also stresses the critical value of identifying partners to help make the program work. For novices, she suggests a two-pronged approach: expanding on existing relationships and finding new partners. Stember gives credit not only to local Portland-based organizations, but national groups, such as School Food FOCUS and Ecotrust’s Farm to School Network, for helping them succeed. Indeed, she hopes that national connections will help to facilitate the replication of Portland’s Fresh Start breakfast model across the country. In the meantime, Stember looks forward to taking the Fresh Start Farm to School Breakfast program from its infancy through to its vast potential. She’s tickled by all the possibilities on the horizon for both a renewed focus for the Nutrition Services department and exciting new opportunities for PPS students: “Fresh Start is recharging us. It is a restart to put new energy into farm to school—and to breakfast!” Arianne Corbett, RD, is president of Leading Health, LLC, in Arlington, Va., and a former manager of nutrition advocacy at SNA. USDA Farm to School Grant Program Each year, USDA awards up to $5 million in competitive grants to support farm-to-school programs. Grant funding may be used to offset a range of expenses, including training, operations, planning, equipment, school gardens, developing partnerships and implementation. Generally, grant opportunities fall into three categories: • Planning grants are for school districts or schools just starting to incorporate farm-to-school program elements into their operations; • Implementation grants are intended for school districts or schools to help scale or further develop existing farm-to-school initiatives; and • Support Service grants are earmarked for entities working with school districts or schools to further develop existing programs and to provide far-reaching support services for farm-to-school initiatives. For more information on USDA’s Farm to School Program or to sign up for the agency’s Farm to School E-Letter and receive notices about upcoming grant opportunities, visit www.fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool. And if you’re attending SNA’s Annual National Conference in Kansas City in July (page 82), make a point to look for representatives of the USDA Farm to School team in USDA Lane in the Exhibit Hall.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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