Based on the attendance at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference held recently in Cincinnati, there's widespread interest in serving foods from local farms in school lunchrooms. But the dozens of sessions at the conference also showed how complicated it can be to make those connections.
The three-day conference organized by the National Farm to School Network attracted nearly 1,000 school food service professionals, farmers and other farm-to-school advocates from across the U.S and Canada. The program, hosted locally by Ohio State University Extension, explored examples of farm-to-school programs currently in place, including several within Ohio. One common theme was the importance of local interest in serving local foods, whether that food is caribou meat for students in Alaska, taro for students in Hawaii or apples for students in Ohio.
"It's really essential to find a champion in each district," explained Kristin Peters, farm-to-school coordinator with Ohio’s Franklin County Public Health Department. "Sometimes it comes from the bottom up, and sometimes it comes from the superintendent." Peters, who spoke during a panel discussion on farm-to-school partnerships, helped develop the "Ohio Days: My Plate, My State" promotion to serve cafeteria meals made up entirely of foods grown or processed in Ohio. Since January of 2017 the all-Ohio meals have been offered once a month in Columbus City Schools. They are also being offered in several smaller school districts in the county. The buying power of Columbus City Schools makes it possible for other districts to access some of the Ohio foods, she noted. "Our smaller districts are able to piggyback on what Columbus City Schools ordered." For instance, a food processor might be willing to set up a processing line to cut up a large order of Ohio sweet potatoes, but might not be willing to fill a smaller order.
One of the biggest challenges in getting local foods on school menus is accessing foods in a form the schools can use. Most schools no longer have the equipment or staff to process and cook foods from scratch on site, she explained.
An apple a day
Besides offering local foods for the monthly Ohio Days, the Columbus City School District now serves Ohio-grown apples rather than apples from Washington state. The district is the largest in the state with more than 50,000 students in 109 schools. Joe Brown, food service director for Columbus City Schools, said when he began his efforts to include more Ohio-grown foods on his menus he was surprised to discover that none of the apples the district was serving came from Ohio. He connected with Bauman Orchards in Rittman, Ohio, and now nearly all 3 million apples he serves each year come from that orchard. The switch did require some flexibility, he said. "I can't have all red delicious all the same size." But now students are enjoying the flavors of more apple varieties.
Schools sometimes aren’t willing to try local foods because of cost concerns, but local foods aren't necessarily more expensive, Brown pointed out. He's saving $2 per bushel by buying the local apples, and they are fresher than those he used to get from Washington state. "Everything hasn't worked out that way, but it’s a great example of how it can."
To make even better use of Ohio apples, Brown is using a Farm to School grant from USDA to purchase an apple slicing machine so the schools can offer sliced apples, which students prefer. "If you put sliced apples in front of them, they'll eat them all day long," he said.
His primary job, Brown added, is to feed students. "We need kids to eat food, not just take food," he explained. Slicing apples is a way of getting more nutritious food into students' bellies. A comparison of whole apples and sliced apples in the school cafeterias showed that students eat 5 times as much of the apples by weight when they are sliced.
Challenges and limits
While the price of foods is a concern for school districts, other factors can also limit the use of local foods, Brown noted. Many school buildings no longer have full service kitchens, and districts don’t have processing capacity to prepare foods. For instance, Columbus schools used to have processing capabilities, but equipment was not replaced or repaired over the years due to budget constraints. Now the district's Food Service Processing Center has limited processing ability and is used as a packaging center to sort and assemble menu items for the district’s elementary schools. “If you want to sell me whole heads of lettuce, I can’t do anything with it in this building,” he said during a tour of the facility.
Another constraint is the time food service staffs have to manage local foods. For one of the monthly Ohio Days meals, cafeteria staff members in the Columbus district high schools hand sliced, locally raised turkey, but that required too much labor for the turkey to be integrated into the regular menu cycle, Brown said.
Based on local income levels, all students in Columbus City Schools qualify for free breakfasts and lunches through the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision. Before the district started participating in that program, about 80% of the students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, Brown said. Processing meal program applications and collecting money took up a lot of staff time that now can be spent on other tasks, such as planning local meals. “If we were still back in those days, I don’t think we’d have the time to do this," Brown said.
Timing of local harvests is another a consideration in serving local foods, Brown added. The monthly Ohio Days meals aren’t the same time each month because of the availability of locally-grown foods. For instance, during the fall, the meals are generally early in the month to take advantage of late season vegetables. Then in the spring, the meals are later each month, so more early produce is available. Strawberries, for instance, might not be available in early May, but might be by the end of the month.
Remaining flexible with menu options is also necessary, Brown said. Last fall, Ohio apples were not yet available the first week of school, so for that one week he had to revert to out-of-state apples. But hitches like that are no reason to avoid working toward more local foods in schools, he stressed: “Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress.”
In Columbus, the farm to school efforts are being led by a project team that involves representatives from the school district, Ohio State University Extension, the Columbus Public Health Department and Franklin County Public Health Department. Similar efforts are underway in other areas of the state as well. The Cuyahoga County Board of Health is working with local producers and school food service professionals to promote local foods in schools. The effort, called Feed Our Future, was partially funded through a USDA Farm to School grant. It is meant to increase adoption of farm to school programs by connecting producers, buyers and students, explained Alison Patrick, farm to school program coordinator for the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. “Our vision is that every child, everywhere, deserves access to fresh, healthy and, when available, local foods,” she explained.
The Feed Our Future logo, promotional materials, farm contacts and other resources are available beyond Cuyahoga County through their website, feedourfuture.org.
Communities that are considering farm to school initiatives can also get help with planning through an online community assessment tool. Eunlye Lee, a researcher with Case Western Reserve University’s Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods, has helped develop an assessment tool to evaluate the changes in policies, systems and environments needed to support farm to school and other healthy food programs in a community. The tool looks at factors such as local school food service guidelines, local food distribution systems, and awareness and support for farm to school within the community. Once the factors are evaluated, organizers can target efforts where they’re needed, she explained. An updated version of the decision program will be available this summer at psereadi.org.
Another community engagement program was also demonstrated during the conference. Community members often have different interests and values related to school meals, explained Dan Remley, field specialist in food, nutrition and wellness with OSU Extension. He and Glennon Sweeney, senior research associate with Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute, use a role-playing exercise to help groups resolve conflicts as they consider school meals and other food programs. Farm-to-school efforts should be considered partnerships, Sweeney stressed: “If decision makers can get the input of people involved it’s better for everyone.” For more information on coordinating community involvement, email Sweeney at email@example.com.
Ohio State University Extension is also working throughout the state to promote farm to school efforts. For additional resources contact Ohio Farm to School Program director Carol Smathers at 614-688-1801 or refer to Ohio State University Extension’s Farm to School website at farmtoschool.osu.edu.