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No Kidding. School Food That Tastes Good

Farm-to-school programs please kids, enrich farmers

April 16, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Rodney Taylor/ Riverside Unified School District

Jefferson Elementary School students in Riverside, Calif., now eat locally grown, farm-fresh produce at the school salad bar.

In 1997, when Rodney Taylor directed food service for the public schools in Santa Monica and Malibu, Calif., he juggled menu planning, orders, deliveries, and supervised the cooks who made lunch for 15,000 students. Mr. Taylor believed his finely tuned operation was doing a swell job until the day a parent urged him to replace the pre-packaged fruits and vegetables at the salad bars with produce from local farms.

Fresher produce, the father argued, would taste so much better that students would jump at the chance to eat healthier foods.

Mr. Taylor, who will speak in Ohio in June at the second National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, thought the idea would be an operational nightmare. Cooks would have to tear up lettuce leaves and cut carrot sticks instead of just dumping them out of bags. Mr. Taylor would have to buy from multiple farmers instead of one food distributor who delivered. And he’d need to negotiate prices.

All that meant timeā€¦and money. And really, he thought, would the kids even notice? “To be quite frank, I was quite skeptical,” Mr. Taylor said. “I did not think it would work at all.”

But Mr. Taylor was wrong, and the experiment he tried at one elementary school launched one of the first two known farm-to-school lunch programs in the country. After Mr. Taylor expanded the program district-wide, the number of students munching on greens for lunch at one school skyrocketed from 10 students to 180. And in just a decade’s time, since the first such program was started in Florida, the number of school districts serving fresh local farm foods in the lunch line has also jumped, to at least 400, according to according to Marion Kalb, Farm to School Program director for the Community Food Security Coalition, a lead sponsor of the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference,a non-profit organization based in California and Washington, D.C. More than 200 colleges and universities also have local purchasing programs.

Now, as more of the nation’s nearly 15,000 public school districts consider adding the fresh flavors of locally grown foods to improve student diets, food service directors are anxious to learn how it’s done. Many family farmers, facing plummeting prices in bulk commodity markets, are also watching closely. They hope schools, which spend more than $7 billion nationally on school lunches, will become steady markets.

Kids Like It Fresh
Mr. Taylor is one of a number of food service directors, farmers, and educators who plan to share their experiences at the second national farm-to-cafeteria conference, in June, at Kenyon College near Columbus, Ohio. Three years ago the first conference lasted just a day. Now, with growing interest among schools to help children fight staggering rates of childhood obesity and a life of related heart disease and diabetes, the conference is three days long and includes a half-day workshop designed for food service directors by food service directors.

In addition to farm-to-school projects, the conference highlights the experiences of hospitals, colleges, universities, and prisons in incorporating local farm products into their cafeteria offerings. And the conference will look at everything from integrating local farms into school curriculum to state and federal policy issues, such as current lobbying in Congress to secure $5 million in funds to help schools launch programs.

Good Food And Nerves On the Lunch Line
Although the farm-to-school experience is nearly a decade old, with strong successes reported from coast to coast, school systems nevertheless are cautious. In northwest Michigan, two farmers supplied apples and potatoes to Central Grade School in a pilot program that the Michigan Land Use Institute launched last fall with the Traverse City Area Public Schools. Kids doubled the amount of potatoes they ate for the fall season and ate four times as many apples.

 “It is very enlightening to see the students actually looking forward to eating fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Kristen Misiak, the school system's food service director.

Hearing of these efforts, other schools in the region are interested in starting their own programs. Nonetheless, school officials across the region, including Ms. Misiak, have the same questions that Mr. Taylor, in Santa Monica, had about the logistics of starting or expanding their purchases of locally grown foods.

“I strongly feel it is the right thing to do,” said Roberto Corona, food service director for the Elk Rapids Schools in rural Antrim County, near Traverse City, where cherry, peach, and apple orchards bloom in the countryside. “We are surrounded by so many different farms and a lot of the kids from those farms come to our school. They will know that their farms have so much value if they see their products in the lunch line.

“But I still have a lot of questions about the pricing, the health department and regulations, and all that,” Mr. Corona said. “It is still kind of gray to me.”

Managing From Field To Cafeteria
Mr. Corona’s questions do have answers, though. J’Amy Petersen, formerly the food service director at the Gadsden County Public Schools, in the northern Florida Panhandle, knows exactly how he feels. Her Gadsden school district is believed to be the first farm-to-school program in the country.

Ms. Petersen, a dietician, grew up on a farm in North Dakota, where her parents grew vegetables in their garden, and durum wheat for macaroni and spaghetti noodles. Like Mr. Corona, she didn’t need to be convinced that just-picked fresh foods are more nutritious and flavorful. So she was interested when Glyen Holmes, a representative of the New North Florida Cooperative of Farmers, came up to her at a 1995 conference and asked if she would consider buying fresh locally grown collard greens instead of the frozen greens she used in school lunches.

Cost was a big question for Ms. Petersen, but the farmers were able to meet her price. She also didn’t know whether she could afford to have her cooks chop the collards before steaming them. But the Florida farmers offered washed, chopped, and bagged greens. What about health and sanitation? Mr. Holmes asked the local health inspector to observe the farmers’ processing line to assuage Ms. Petersen’s concerns.

The results?

The children immediately noticed the difference in flavor between the fresh and frozen collard greens, leaving nary a bite of fresh greens on their plates. Before, portions of the cooked frozen greens always ended up in the trash. And teachers always could tell when fresh collards were on the menu.

“I do remember teachers coming into the kitchen and saying, ‘I can tell we have fresh collards today,’ Ms. Petersen said. “Just from the aroma alone they could tell a difference between the fresh and the frozen. It’s like when you cut grass. You get that aroma of freshness.”

Schools As An Important Farm Market
The experiences of these two far flung school districts in Florida and California show that programs can be successful anywhere, but also may be as varied as the country’s population and terrain.

In rural, economically strapped Gadsden County, the farmers in the north Florida cooperative prepare and deliver the vegetables instead of asking the schools to change. The school orders helped the farmers build their business, get bank loans and successfully snare grants to purchase storage coolers, more sophisticated processing equipment, and refrigerated delivery trucks. Now, about 100 family farmers, most cultivating only two to 25 acres each, sell collard greens, sweet potatoes, and other products to 300 schools in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi.

“One of the most valuable lessons learned is to try to start out small and grow from that point,” said Mr. Holmes, now executive director of the farmer group.

In affluent and urban Santa Monica and Malibu, outside Los Angeles, school employees shop for the salad bar ingredients twice a week at two teeming-with-produce local farmers markets. The district transports the produce in a school truck it also uses to deliver meals it prepares on contract to other schools. And the school cooks chop all the vegetables and fruit.

Yes, switching to locally grown foods initially cost more money, said Mr. Taylor, who now is a major champion of the cause.  In addition to the labor and trucking, it cost about $5,000 per school for upgraded salad bar equipment.

In Santa Monica, Mr. Taylor enlisted help from the Parent Teacher Association, which raised about $30,000 for equipment. In addition, he didn’t require that every local product he purchased be as cheap as what he could buy from a mass wholesale distributor. Instead, he balanced out his entire costs for the salad bar with some items that were more expensive and some that weren’t. In the end, the salad bar cost him 58 cents a meal compared to 90 cents for the alternative hot lunch meal.

Mr. Taylor, who is now the food service director for Riverside public schools,  started another pilot farm salad bar on March 1. In just the first month, 13 teachers ate lunch in the cafeteria instead of only two, which means that in a year’s time that extra $3 per meal payment will bring in $5,940, enough to pay one of his key extra labor costs.

Higher student participation in school lunches also brings in more revenues. Remember those 180 students who chose the salad bar in one school, compared to only 10 each day before the farmers market produce? That’s more than half the 300 students who ate lunch there daily. And the kicker is that 120 of those 300 students had been eating sack lunches from home until students and parents alike discovered the salad bar.

Mr. Taylor’s advice to other busy school food service directors?

“If you want to make something happen, you will find a way,” he said. “There is no one size fits all. There is no doubt that it is labor intensive. There is no doubt you will need start-up funding. But there is also no doubt that you can get it. The fact of the matter is, it was far simpler once we got into than we thought it would be.”

Diane Conners, a journalist and former farmers market master, coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s entrepreneurial agriculture program, including its farm-to-school project. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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