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Many Routes to Many Roots

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What path should you take in bringing the farm to your school? All roads lead to health, nutrition and education success; blaze the trail best suited to your school nutrition program.

By Susan Davis Gryder

Farm-to-school programs are in the news, on our minds—and maybe already a part of your cafeteria operation. Different advocacy organizations estimate that nearly every state in the country (including Alaska!) has some type of farm-to-school program in operation. These programs number into the thousands—and are growing all the time. But what does it really mean to have a farm-to-school program in place?

Does it mean that all foods served in the cafeteria come from local sources? Is the school nutrition department required to have a direct business relationship with an area farmer? Must local foods be incorporated into reimbursable school meals at all?

Fortunately, the definition of farm-to-school programs is very broad. When you look behind the numbers, you will see that school districts are taking a variety of approaches to getting fresh, local foods into their schools. In some cases, it’s through regular school nutrition procurement channels throughout the year. In others, it’s only for infrequent special promotions. Some schools boast their own gardens, orchards and greenhouses. After all, every district faces very specific and individual challenges when considering how to establish an effective farm-to-school program.

For some, obstacles are geographic: growing seasons and the types of local crops available to a district may limit what’s possible to include in local sourcing. For others, distribution can be an issue, particularly for urban districts far from farm sites, or even for rural districts where the distances between schools can complicate deliveries. Volume may be an issue. Infrastructure complications abound (schools with and without prep kitchens; labor and time limitations). Then there’s the challenge of translating a farmer’s world of just-picked produce with dirt still clinging to the roots to the school foodservice universe, with its regulations, limited resources and tight budgets.

But don’t let these challenges hold you back! If you’re eager to incorporate a farm-to-school program in your school nutrition operation, consider all your options. From school gardens to procurement opportunities, there’s bound to be a strategy that will allow you to introduce more locally grown fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and other items on student trays. Take a look at how a few different farm-to-school models are working for districts from one coast to the other.

PROCUREMENT:

A Fine Art
The Ventura (Calif.) Unified School District has operated a farm-to-school program for 10 years, says Director of Food and Nutrition Services Sandy Curwood. In keeping with the district’s Healthy Schools project, Curwood strives to procure as much produce locally as possible, as part of an overall emphasis on healthy food and nutrition education. “We have taste-testing in the classroom, cooking classes, school gardens and a teacher-specialist who focuses on the garden and nutrition education,” Curwood details. “We try to link the cafeteria and the classroom, and tie nutrition education to the core curriculum.”

To achieve such ambitious goals, Curwood must manage a complicated plan for procuring local produce. “We procure in every way possible!” she laughs. One of her ongoing projects is the development of a functional “food hub” that will allow the school nutrition team to aggregate produce purchases from several small farmers so that items can be distributed efficiently.

According to Curwood, such a food hub can be physical—an actual warehouse location where farmers deliver their produce—or conceptual. In Curwood’s own conceptual model, a staff person in her office was assigned responsibility (as “gleaner”) to coordinate the procurement of crops, communicating regularly with all of the area growers. Effective communication is a critical part of this conceptual model, says Curwood. “We need to translate the farmers’ language to school foodservice, so that everyone understands what’s needed,” she explains. “Farmers may not be used to delivering food in the form we need it—washed and prepped, for example.” Although budget cuts eliminated the gleaner as a specific position in the school nutrition department, the responsibilities are shared among others on the team.

The incorporation of fresh, local produce to the school menu has meant some changes for both school nutrition staffers and area farmers. Curwood’s staff has had to learn skills that haven’t been used for a while in the school kitchen, such as prepping and washing food that comes straight from the farm. And farmers have had to start thinking about the size and appetite of their new, smaller customers. Curwood cites a recent example, when she procured fruit for sack lunches for her summer foodservice program. “I usually send out whole fruits in sack lunches,” she says. “When I received oranges from our local supplier, they sent really big oranges—much too big to put in a sack lunch! We ended up having to cut them up, which required extra labor. So I also learn by trial and error.”

Curwood describes her local procurement process as one that is highly adaptable—out of necessity: “If your goal is to source enough local produce, you have to be flexible and creative; you must go directly to farmers, engage your mainline vendor and even buy from farmers’ markets.” She bids some of her produce, taking advantage of changed federal regulations that allow her to specify produce grown within 100 miles of her district. She also reaches out directly to local farmers for produce that she needs in smaller amounts, such as kiwi and blood oranges. She tailors her menus to reflect the seasonal nature of the produce she receives.

“Our costs for produce have increased,” concedes Curwood, “but we manage by using our commodity dollars for the center-of-the-plate items.” In addition, Curwood has eliminated extra side items and uses her salad bars to provide three sides and a vegan/vegetarian alternative. “We’ve eliminated a lot of extra snack-like things, which are costly. The entrée, salad bar and milk allow us to meet requirements,” she notes.

Despite the challenges, Curwood is enthusiastic about the benefits of sourcing local produce. “Kids and parents love it,” she says, reporting that her participation has increased. “Kids feel special because they know they can eat things that are really good for them and are really tasty—picked yesterday and on their plates tomorrow!” And others will be learning from Curwood’s success: a team from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently selected the Ventura operation as one to study. [Editors’ Note: For more examples of districts incorporating farm-to-school into school nutrition procurement, see “From Magic Beans to Golden Eggs”.]

PROMOTIONS:

A Change Is Gonna Come
Change is good—but it often takes time. Some school districts aren’t ready to plunge right into year-round sourcing of local foods, or administrators perceive insurmountable barriers to such an extensive program. If you want to ease into a farm-to-school program, consider doing so through a promotion of limited duration and scope.

Maryland is one Eastern state with deep agricultural roots. Farmers produce a wide range of foodstuffs, ranging from apples, pears and tomatoes to beans, cantaloupes, chickens and more. (And don’t forget famous Maryland crabs from the Chesapeake Bay!) Stew Eidel, of Maryland’s Department of Education, School and Community Nutrition Programs Branch, is part of the team that helps to bring local food to Maryland schools through limited-time promotional events.

The state is prepping for next fall’s annual Homegrown School Lunch Week, a promotion that emphasizes the menuing of locally produced foods in the school cafeteria as an educational opportunity to help students make the link between nutrition and agriculture. This effort began in the Maryland legislature, which passed a law promoting farm-to-school initiatives that emphasized the connection between Maryland agriculture and education. To implement the legislation, a working group (the senator who sponsored the original bill, members of several state agencies, school nutrition experts and even some interested chefs and writers) brainstormed approaches and logistics. The result: The designation of one week per year during which Maryland public schools would promote and support local growers and their products.

The biggest challenge, shares Eidel, was identifying participating farms and schools and streamline the process for getting the food from farm to cafeteria. But there were other challenges, too: “Farmers typically don’t connect with the end user, so their mindset is different from the school foodservice operator’s,” notes Eidel. “We didn’t think about marketing [the initiative] to the farmers, and it was harder than we thought it would be!” The first year, the process involved a lot of phone calls. But the next year, the Department of Education hosted a conference that brought together farmers, foodservice operators, educators, community members and activists.

To keep the project moving, the state agency posts announcements of crop availability, meets with farmers to educate them on needs for the coming year’s promotion, and makes suggestions to school foodservice operations about procurement, processing and serving. Eidel and his team also prepare promotional materials and select one school district each year that will be showcased during the promotion, with special events, press invitations and even a tractor parade that carries a local farmer to the festivities.

In 2008, the first year of the Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week promotion, all but one of Maryland’s 24 school districts participated. How they participated was up to the individual district, and programs and events varied from site to site. In the more rural Cecil County, for example, some local farmers already had a close connection to a number of schools. “Students might know the farmer’s family,” says Eidel. “They may have already bought food from the farm. We wanted all the kids to understand the love, time, energy and resources that the farmer put into the product, to connect the food to its nutritional benefits.”

In other areas, “If the district had a hard time finding a good farmer,” recounts Eidel, “we suggested that they start by growing basil and parsley in their local school garden, or look for ways to use [local items as a secondary] ingredient.” In Montgomery County, for example, which includes the high-density suburbs of Washington, D.C., the school nutrition department served a manufacturer’s pizza topped with locally grown vegetables.

Although the locally grown promotion receives the most attention only one week a year, the effort has resulted in year-round relationships between schools and farmers. “Every school system in Maryland has now connected with local farmers,” Eidel reports, “and they buy whenever they can and the growing season allows. Many buy apples and pears, which have a longer shelf life.”

To Eidel and his team, it’s all about connections: between farmers and schools, schools and communities and, most important, children and the food they eat. The benefits abound, he notes: “When children get an apple from a specific farm that they know, they connect to the food, and they connect the food to its nutritional benefits.”

Check with your state education and agriculture agencies to see if they are coordinating a similar promotion in your area. And even without their official support, you can tap their resources and contacts to develop a limited-time farm-to-school promotion of your own!

EDUCATION:

Which Came First… ?
When you think of Arizona, you might think of the desert, which encompasses much of the southern half of the state. But the state, with its diverse topography that includes mountains over 12,000 feet above sea level, is home to some 10,000 farms that grow irrigated crops like lettuce, melons, broccoli, cauliflower and lemons. In addition to farmers who grow food in the ground, Arizona food producers include cattle ranchers, dairy farmers, beekeepers and chicken farmers.

Many Arizona farmers are interested in reaching out to the state’s schools. The Arizona County Farm Bureau has its own initiative, Agriculture in the Classroom, which develops and implements curricula and programs to increase agriculture awareness among students. The programs, which are aligned to the state’s learning standards, bring farmers into K-6 classrooms to offer hands-on learning opportunities on topics as varied as “Tools of a Cowboy,” “Grow Your Own Pizza” and “Agricultural Friends and Foes.”

One Arizona farm that’s an enthusiastic participant in the Agriculture in the Classroom project is Hickman’s Eggs, a family-owned farm based in Buckeye, Ariz., which began in 1944 and is now operated by the family’s third generation. Siblings Clint and Sharman Hickman visit local schools several times a month to talk about farming and agriculture, employing an interactive format that mixes informational presentations with cooking lessons and recipes.

Clint Hickman is passionate about educating kids on the importance of American agriculture. “We need to teach kids where their food comes from,” he says. “If you ask them, they say, ‘It comes from Safeway!’” Most kids, he notes, are so many generations removed from the farm, their images are the storybook illustrations of a little red barn. Education about agriculture is an important aspect of raising informed consumers, and Hickman wants kids to learn about his family’s history in farming, explaining how the enterprise grew from a backyard flock in his grandmother’s day to the 4.5 million chickens of the current operation.

In addition to classroom presentations, Hickman likes to bring a hands-on farming experience to the classroom.
“We provide an egg incubator kit and some fertile eggs, and the kids [then] grow their own baby chicks into chickens,” he describes. When the birds are grown, they are given to someone in the area who has a backyard flock. (Chicks grown outside the corporate farm can’t be re-introduced, as a precaution to protect flock health.) Such classroom presentations allow farmers like Hickman to stay connected to kids, even as they have phased out farm tours, to protect both the flock and the visiting children.

Farmer-in-the-classroom programs don’t have to be limited to classrooms. Contact local farmers about visiting the cafeteria. Invite them to be guest servers, to eat lunch with the children and/or to set up a display in one corner of the dining area where they can showcase key information and answer student questions.

SCHOOL GARDENS:

Dig into the Opportunities
In 2007, Baltimore city administrators were poised to sell a 33-acre plot of land that had been the site of an abandoned orphanage to a local car dealer. That was until Tony Geraci, the new director of food and nutrition services for Baltimore City Public Schools, intervened, requesting the land be given to the district and converted to a giant school garden.

The importance of providing fresh and wholesome food to Baltimore’s kids is hard to overstate. In this district of more than 80,000 students, about three-fourths qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The district has higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure than districts in neighboring counties, and about one-fifth of Baltimore’s children are obese. Many live in “food deserts,” says Geraci, where fresh food and even supermarkets are hard to find and fastfood sites dominate.

Geraci, a former chef who began his school nutrition career in 2003, came to Baltimore with a conviction that a farm-to-school strategy was a viable approach to address some of these challenges. He’d seen its success firsthand in his role as a school nutrition director in a small district in New Hampshire. Now, he was ready to try this approach on a much greater scale.

The abandoned plot of land became the Great Kids Farm: 33 acres of organic vegetable gardens, greenhouses, orchards, goats, chickens, bees and even worms. Much of the labor required by this working farm—the ultimate in school gardens—comes from the kids it serves; school groups arrive by bus to participate in day-long sessions that involve planting seeds, harvesting crops and helping to take care of animals. A full-time farm manager and a dedicated group of adult volunteers keep the farm going year-round.

In Baltimore, the Great Kids Farm acts as the “mother ship” to some 40 school gardens supported by the school nutrition program, explains Geraci. “Kids come out to the farm and see how it works, then they take cuttings that other kids started for them back to their schools” to plant in their own school gardens. Geraci terms it a “pay it forward program” that demonstrates to kids the role they play as part of a greater community.

“The only way that you can change the way kids think about food is to introduce real food to them,” asserts Geraci. “The single most powerful tool that you have is giving a kid a seed. The seed grows into something that they can harvest, cook and serve to their peers. In this way, food is no longer just consumption. It’s stewardship, responsibility.”

Food from the Great Kids Farm and other local school gardens makes its way to the lunch trays and plates of students—although Geraci does supplement those harvests with more traditional farm-to-school procurement, a necessity given the number of meals he serves every day. The multi-pronged approach to farm-to-school priorities allows Baltimore students to enjoy locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables with every meal, he reports.

For Geraci, observing the effects of the farm-to-school initiative on students throughout the district motivates him to continue and expand the program. “My very first day on the job,” he recalls, “I sat down with three semi-toothed 2nd-graders eating peaches for the first time in their lives. One of the kids rubbed the peach along his cheek—I said, ‘It’s supposed to feel like that.’ Another kid bit into his peach. With juice running down his arms, a huge wave of emotion came over his face, followed by a big smile. I said, ‘Food is supposed to taste like that!’ It was his first experience that fruit is a flavor.”

School gardens have a long and productive history in districts of all sizes—and in urban, suburban and rural settings. Many school nutrition departments give individual schools some menu flexibility to incorporate local harvests into the day’s school meal or snack. In some districts, the school garden is operated by the school nutrition department, but in many others, such a project is headed by a teacher or interested volunteer. Keep an open mind about how you can incorporate garden harvests into cafeteria offerings if you are approached about partnering on a school garden initiative.

Food for Thought
These are just a handful of examples of how schools and districts are responding to interest in farm-to-school projects. For more ideas to get started, check out the recommendations in “Planting the Seeds. You also can visit the websites of your state’s departments of agriculture or education or talk to other directors in your area to see what they are doing. Be creative, keep an open mind and watch your efforts bear fruit! SN

Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.


 
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