We've all seen images in national media of schoolchildren nibbling happily on shiny red apples grown on nearby farms and scooping up forkfuls of broccoli harvested from the soil down the road. So why are our kids refueling in the cafeteria on carrots hauled in by truck from California—if not peaches out of a can?
With 244 schools between them, the Orange and Seminole county school districts offer an unwieldy challenge for those determined to get oranges from local groves and grape tomatoes from area growers onto those lunch trays. Their determined foodservice teams are doing what they can, and starting in 2012, their efforts will be aided by a new statewide initiative called Healthy Schools for Healthy Lives that was designed, in part, to ultimately marry local farm products and school lunch lines. The myriad child-nutrition efforts of Michelle Obama on a national level, along with those of several national organizations such as Farm to School, will assist. Realistically, though, expect only a few more crates full of homegrown green peppers to be on the menu any time soon.
Experts agree that the challenges are significant. They include the following:
• Local farms often don’t have the safety certifications that large operations do, yet schools are required to follow rigid purchasing standards aimed at keeping children safe from foodborne illness.
• Small farms rarely have the resources to clean and process (i.e. cut up and bag) produce, nor the funds to deliver their harvest to several schools each week.
• Produce prices from large distributors are often far lower than those from local growers, even after adding in the labor and fuel prices involved in trucking items cross-country.
Despite these hurdles, local schools have made tremendous progress in getting foods from local farms into area lunchrooms. Parents, teachers, principals, school foodservice managers and district directors can do more. Read on for real-world ideas.
Get Others Involved. School districts have small budgets and overtaxed staffs, no doubt. So accept help from parents and residents who care about getting wholesome foods into children’s tummies. “I’ve heard of parent-teacher organizations helping to bridge the gap by doing fundraisers to bring more money into school nutrition services budgets,” says Robert A. Kluson, Ph.D., an AG/NR Extension Agent with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences Extension office in Sarasota. “Slow Food chapters can do it.”
Start Small. A few powerhouse parents won’t get truckloads of celery from a Lake County farm into a huge school district on their own. “That’s a Goliath that requires a lot of different people and different agencies working together to make it happen,” says Kluson. “So be realistic about it. Start a pilot project of, let’s say, 10 schools.”
Raise Money. Schools already burden parents with silent auctions, PTA fees and spaghetti dinners, so how can they possibly raise more — and for locally sourced foods instead of more crucial items like textbooks or computers? Be creative, Kluson suggests. “You can do a farm-to-cork type of dinner on a farm. Or host a dinner catered by small farmers using their foods — maybe with the help of a local chef. I’ve heard of schools having buying clubs using the goods sourced from local farms.” A percentage of sales could be donated to a fundraising bank, he says, accumulating the proceeds for the school foodservice department to purchase locally raised foods or the equipment to process raw foods.
Redefine ‘Local.’ Want your little ones nibbling only greens from acreage in your town? That may not the most feasible option. “There aren’t many farms around here in Seminole County,” observes Chad Wilsky, assistant director of food services for Seminole County Public Schools. “We have a lot of shopping centers and subdivisions. I know many counties out there are looking at ‘local’ as farms in their backyard, but for me, ‘local’ is the state of Florida.”
Widen your range of how you define the term local, says Rachael Terrin, SNS, team nutrition and training coordinator for the Florida Department of Education’s Food and Nutrition Management. “Local is actually defined by the district, and it can be statewide or even across state lines, such as Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Berries may not be grown in one part of the state and grown in abundance in another.”
Rethink ‘Small.’ While efforts are under way to slash the amount of regulation required to bring small farms’ produce into schools, schools might meanwhile look toward midsize farms. “Midsize farms might already be growing oranges, tomatoes, etc., and these folks have the ability to cut you a deal on price because they can just plant a few more acres of something you ask for,” says Kluson. They won’t be able to supply the variety you want so that’s where, over time, you can start working in the smaller farmers that grow other foods.”
Go Directly to the Director. Make sure the foodservice director cares about this project or it will probably fail, Kluson warns. “Approach the foodservice director and make sure he or she is on your side,” he advises. “Not all foodservice directors want the extra work involved in bringing farm-fresh local foods to schools.” In addition, he says, make sure the head honchos receive the credit for all progress made. “When you do newspaper interviews, throw in their name and say how much they’re cooperating to get things done, and hope like heck that that makes the difference.”
Befriend a Farmer. When a school or district does purchase items from a local farm, give the farm credit publicly. “Encourage cooperation with farmers by naming them on school lunch menus and websites,” suggests Kluson. Then take the relationship further by taking cafeteria staffers out to tour the farm and bringing the farmer into the kitchen, he says. “Farmers get a sense of pride serving local schools, especially if they have kids of their own. I’ve seen farmers visit school cafeterias and almost well up with tears when they see children eating their foods. The kids want to come up and touch them, and their own children announce, ‘They’re serving my potatoes for lunch today.’”
Bring it Down a Notch. Make sure cafeteria employees are in the loop, Kluson advises. “The school cafeteria staff has to be elevated in its status, treated almost like they’re teachers,” he says. “In addition to taking them on a field trip to a farm, maybe give them food baskets for their own personal use. When kids come through the cafeteria line they can say, ‘This is from Farmer Smith’s farm right here outside Orlando, and here’s a picture of him.’” The USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food website is helpful in this area, he suggests.
Ask the Middleman. “We have fresh produce in our schools every day, but they’re not purchased from the small farmer down the road because of all the obstacles,” says Wilsky. To increase Seminole’s local efforts, he says, “We’ve asked our distributors to start seeking out farms in Central Florida or South Florida to see what we can do when certain items are in season.” And they do, whenever possible, November through April. But his distributor needs to be picky. “It can’t just be any farmer. It can’t just be any crop. Farms have to meet certain safety standards. I think just making sure school districts offer fresh produce every day is a good start. Some only offer fresh produce once or twice a week.”
In Orange County, as senior director of Food & Nutrition Services, Lora Gilbert, MS, RD, also asks her distributors to prioritize local farms. As a result, Orange County’s public school students sometimes see strawberries, grape tomatoes and bell peppers, for example, from six farms with 407, 813, 914 and 352 area codes.
Simplify. Following health and safety regulations regarding school foodstuffs is a big job, so some districts ask outsiders to help. “In Sarasota, a foodservice director had a food distributor take care of all that paperwork for her,” Kluson notes. Recognizing that it costs extra to pay a distributor, Kluson suggests that schools can use the money raised by parents or local groups to cover the difference.
Ask for Help. In some cases, larger farmers assist smaller ones that seek to marry with the school market. R.C. Hatton Farms, for example, will “go out and train small farmers upon request,” notes Terrin. Katie Rainka, the Florida Department of Education Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program Coordinator, adds that the United Fresh Produce Association also works with schools and the produce industry, as in the “Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools,” for which the group pledged to donate 6,000 salad bars to schools over three years.
Make It a Wellness Priority. To gain momentum, encourage your district to tie farm-to-school foods into its wellness policy, suggests Terrin. “Palm Beach County included farm-to-school initiatives in its wellness policy a few years ago and has been working with local growers for approximately four years,” she reports. If a county-level initiative is too large, start at your school. “Each school’s School Advisory Council can decide to promote wellness in terms of a school garden or through other efforts,” Rainka suggests.
Host a Garden Party. Begin with a garden at the school itself. A motivated teacher, parent or college student looking for experience in this area can join the annual Master Gardeners instructional session held in many counties’ UF Extension offices. Attendees are then asked to volunteer in the community — and starting a school garden counts. Once the garden begins reaping fruits and vegetables, the students involved can share the products of their success with fellow students. In Sarasota, Kluson plans to offer classes specifically on how to set up school gardens; he suggests that interested folks ask their local extension office to do the same.
Celebrate Celery. “Or asparagus, or watermelon,” says Chelsey Simpson, membership and communications associate for the National Farm to School Network. “Some schools bring a locally grown seasonal product into school a certain week and really play it up in the cafeteria,” she suggests. “In Oklahoma, one farm-to-school promotion involved little stations set up in a school courtyard. Students saw asparagus on the grill and tasted it, and volunteers helped kids plant a vegetable to take home and replant in their own garden.”
Tailgate the National Celebration. October 2011 will be the first U.S. National Farm to School Month, and the National Farm to School Network (www.farmtoschool.org) will have a wealth of resources and toolkits for schools to use. During that time, October 24–28 will be Florida Grown School Lunch Week, also a new initiative. “We hope to incorporate as much Florida-grown produce as possible in schools that week,” says Terrin. “We’ll provide resources, encourage cooking demonstrations and farm tours, provide a recipe book to schools and have a statewide event at the capitol on October 24.”
Team Up. In one northeastern school district, the schools partnered with a local food co-op, says Simpson. “After buying produce from local farms, they had members of the co-op fill their service requirement by aiding with food processing. During the summer, the volunteers helped wash, cut and freeze the produce so it would be ready for fall and winter.”
Take the Money and Have Fun. Many of the neediest schools already take advantage of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program administered by the Florida Department of Education, Food and Nutrition Management, using federal distributions; it provides grant money for serving fresh fruit or vegetable snacks three days a week separate from meal service, with an educational tie-in. Orange County had it in six public schools in 2010. Many schools “tried to get away from familiar fruits like apples, oranges and bananas,” says Rainka, and introduced mangos, kiwis, edamame, avocado and zucchini, among others. Perhaps get the goods from neighboring farms. “Small local growers can be overwhelmed with the quantity required for lunches, but with this program they’d only be serving a few schools. You could do a pilot test on a small scale and have them work up to doing a district-wide push,” Rainka says.
Be Thankful You’re in Florida. Our growing season corresponds with our school year, so it’s easier here than in certain other parts of the country to get locally grown foods into schools, Kluson points out. “We have papayas and peaches now, and so much more citrus than just oranges. Some small farmers grow salad greens, so we could get started by using those on a salad bar.”
Now, About Kids Actually Eating the Produce …
You can hand kids all the oranges and kiwis you want. If the fruit ends up in the trash, it hasn’t served its purpose. Pros in Orange and Seminole counties found ways around waste.
Ask Kids What They Want. Why guess what kinds of produce students prefer when they’re happy to share their opinions? In Orange County public schools, Javier Vazquez, food and nutrition area manager in charge of technology, put together a social networking webpage called My Food Face on which select students can vote for foods. Once a year, Orange County’s school folks host a food show for 150 to 300 people, says Kern Halls, area manager in charge of secondary menus. Vendors display new items, and children at all grade levels taste-test them. “When an item gets a 70 percent or higher acceptability rate, it goes to the schools for further taste testing,” Halls explains.
Get Cookin’! An Orange County program called Chefs Move to Schools allowed local chefs to test new culinary ideas on students in 15 schools. “One chef got kids to eat coleslaw in a fish taco,” Gilbert reports. “They don’t realize coleslaw is cabbage! The partnership resulted in foods that are kid-friendly and acceptable from a health standpoint.”
Let Kids Make Their Own. “One school introduced a make-your-own salad bar and that went over so well that other schools will add it soon,” says Chef Thomas Group, catering manager for Seminole County Public Schools.
Remember, Kids Often Judge a Book by its Cover. “Students eat with their eyes first, so make it look pretty,” Group suggests. “Kids will eat any produce a long as it’s cut up or served with a dipping sauce. So slice apples and cut oranges into segments. Cut carrots into coins or spears, and serve them with ranch dressing or salsa.”
Know Your Audience. The popularity of sliced produce is not only due to its friendliness for little fingers, adds OCPS Diane Santoro, area manager and nutritionist. “We found that young students who are missing front teeth, and older ones wearing braces, can’t eat whole apples, and so they toss them in the trash. And we don’t consider it healthy until the students eat it.”
Waste Not, Want Not. Teach kids about waste and they’ll throw out less. “One school composts school lunch waste,” says Kluson. The students separate their waste as they deposit their trays, and the staff explains that some of the plant-based waste will be used to feed the school garden. The reinforcement helps reduce waste.