Little Locavores

From day-care lunch tables to K-12 cafeterias, farm-to-school programs are taking root
young children eating lunch
Partners for a Healthier Community, a nonprofit in Springfield, Mass., brought 10 of the city’s preschools and day cares together to form a co-op that buys produce from a local farm. Photo: Steven Vote
March 6, 2013

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A few years ago, the Square One child-care centers in Springfield, Mass., made some adjustments to their menus. The changes brought arguments from the kids, although not the kind you might expect. Food Service Director Sara Teece recalls some of the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds insisted that the pears they were gobbling up were not pears. They had eaten pears, they said—pale, squishy chunks swimming in juice—not these things that looked like they may have come off a tree.

“They had never seen a fresh pear before,” Teece says.

Today, the kids have plenty of fresh encounters, with pears, apples, strawberries and other produce, thanks to Jessica Collins, N01, and Frank Martinez Nocito, N03, who brought 10 of the city’s preschools and day cares together to form a co-op that buys produce from a local farm in Hadley, Mass.

Now the kitchens serve up steamed green beans that have never met a freezer, homemade soups with diced fresh vegetables and locally grown sweet potatoes sprinkled with cinnamon and a little sugar.

For Collins, director of special initiatives for the nonprofit Partners for a Healthier Community, buying fruits and vegetables from local farmers is about equity for the children. Springfield is not a wealthy community. Some of the kids who go to preschool here are homeless. Some of their parents are in prison. On Monday morning, many come to school hungry.

 

“We know that these kids are eating the fresh produce and that they will go home and tell their parents about it.”—Jessica Collins, N01

 

“These are beautiful, smart kids, and many of them have complicated lives due to poverty,” Collins says. “We’re saying these kids deserve what everyone else has,” including access to fresh, healthy food.

Farm-to-school programs like this one are taking root everywhere, from urban preschools to rural high schools. Over the last 15 years, schools across the country have gone from timidly buying a few local apples in the fall to arranging standing orders worth tens of thousands of dollars with farmers nearby.

Support at the state, local and federal level has spurred school districts to develop new supply chains, with an emphasis on fresh instead of canned and local instead of shipped. Sometimes that means breaking with the way things have been done for decades.

Why all the fuss about local? The theory behind farm-to-school programs is that children who are served fresher, more appealing produce—fruits and vegetables that actually look good enough to eat—will grow up to be healthy eaters, perhaps putting a dent in the obesity epidemic. At the same time, schools that buy local can become a steady source of income for small- and medium-scale farmers, who often struggle to make a profit in an industry dominated by huge farms. Some, like Collins, see it as a tool for social and health equity.

Salad-Bar Beginnings

The first attempt to team up farms with schools may have been in 1996, when a father in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District of California got together with the schools’ food service director to create a salad bar that featured local produce. Not surprisingly, California, with its long growing season, became the first state to embrace farm-to-school initiatives. Programs in other states emerged, many with support from foundations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As an outgrowth of the farm-to-preschool program, a bus brings fresh fruits and vegetables to several child-care centers once a week, so parents can pick up something healthy for dinner. Photo: Steven Vote

The movement got a boost in 2010, when the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allocated $40 million over eight years to bolster school districts’ farm-to-school efforts. By the end of 2011, 33 states had policies supporting farm-to-school initiatives, and 10 states had hired staffers to work on farm-to-school issues.

That’s not to say that bringing locally grown foods into schools hasn’t been a rocky row to hoe. Food service directors have had many concerns: cost, quality, reliable supply, food safety, seasonality and the hassle of working within federal and state procurement regulations. Many school districts weren’t set up to pay individual farmers for small orders of produce.

That’s where Colleen Matts, N06, comes in. Matts, the farm-to-institution specialist with the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems since 2007, is a matchmaker, introducing farmers to buyers and smoothing the way to long-lasting business relationships.

But it takes patience. When food service directors in rural Manistee County, Michigan, started looking into local produce back in 2008, only one farmer responded to their request for bids. “It was hard to pull them out of being discouraged about that,” Matts says. She tried to cajole some of the farmers herself; she recalls one strawberry grower who said he was just too old for new endeavors such as working with a school.

 

The theory behind farm-to-school programs is that children who are served fresher, more appealing produce will grow up to be healthy eaters.

 

“They often stick to what they know,” Matts says. “They worry about getting involved with schools because they assume there is a lot of paperwork that goes along with it.” Michigan has tried its best, by keeping the request for bids down to a relatively unthreatening three pages. And they’ve been helped by legislation. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allows schools to give local providers preference when they bid for school food contracts, and a change to Michigan law now allows schools to buy up to $100,000 of local produce without going through a formal bidding process.

Today, some schools in Manistee County buy local apples, asparagus, blueberries, corn, cherries, green beans, lettuce, pears, plums, potatoes, summer squash, winter squash, tomatoes, watermelon and strawberries. (Even the strawberry farmer eventually decided working with schools was too good an opportunity to pass up.)

Michigan State University surveys found that between 2004 and 2009, the number of Michigan food service directors who were buying local produce had more than tripled, from 11 percent to 41 percent.

Photo: Steven VoteAnd with that, the conversation around farm to school has matured, Matts says. Five years ago, schools may have been looking to buy whole produce such as apples and pears—the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. Now they are seeking foods that have been lightly processed, such as peeled and sliced squash or ready-to-eat baby carrots. That is pushing farmers and food producers to rethink the way they process and package their products. When the Grand Rapids Public Schools contacted a local dairy and asked about supplying milk directly to the schools, the dairy went so far as to put in new equipment so it could bottle half-pint containers for the cafeterias.

Other foods, such as meat, remain a challenge. “We don’t have enough USDA meat-processing facilities to easily process and move meat locally,” Matts explains.

Still, farmers have had such success selling to schools that they are starting to look at other institutions. Matts knows of one Michigan farmer who changed his crops to meet the needs of a correctional facility: He grew small potatoes with thin skins that could be mashed without peeling (prison kitchen equipment is highly restricted), and cultivated ears of corn that were just the right size for splitting into two servings. Matts expects to be doing more work with hospitals, as well as colleges and universities.

Working Relationships

Farm-to-school programs in and of themselves may not drastically change the way we eat, but Michelle Markesteyn Ratcliffe, N08, farm-to-school program manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, already sees the movement leading to bigger things. Oregon, she points out, is working to step down the sodium its metropolitan-area bakers use, a trend that began when the Portland Public Schools decreased the salt in the bread products they served. “We’re literally changing how food is being produced, kids are educated and communities work together,” Ratcliffe says.

Perhaps more important, because farm-to-school is one of the rare food issues that people seem to agree on (“Who can argue with feeding kids healthy, local foods?” she asks), it has helped communities and nutrition advocates forge relationships with food producers, packagers and distributors.

Those connections could be important down the road, when we need to figure out how to feed a world population of 9 billion, which we are set to reach in 2050. “It’s one of those systemic levers,” Ratcliffe says. “If we can have solid, working, trusting relationships up and down the supply chain, then we’ve succeeded.”

There’s still a lot to do, however. Bringing locally produced and processed food into cafeterias is one thing; it’s another to change how kids think about food.

“Many kids have about eight minutes to eat lunch,” Ratcliffe points out. “The fact that the cafeteria is not considered a learning environment is problematic, because we are teaching them something.”

Over the last 15 years, schools across the country have gone from timidly buying a few local apples in the fall to arranging standing orders worth tens of thousands of dollars with nearby farmers.

Creating kids who are literate in agriculture, food and the environment—by planting school gardens or making nutrition part of the curriculum—should be a goal for every school, she says, and something she expects will be taken up for the next iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. She also says there should be more research into best practices and the impact that farm to school is having on fruit and vegetable consumption.

Ratcliffe, who has been part of the farm-to-school movement since before it had a name, says she can plot a school district’s enthusiasm on the normal bell-shaped curve. “There are early adopters, people doing this regardless of any type of challenge.” For example, the Portland, Ore., schools, a highly motivated group with extensive community engagement, were making 32 percent of their food purchases locally, even before they had any federal or state support.

“Then I have some schools that will just never do it” of their own volition, she says. But even that small percentage will go along “accidentally” as the system around them changes.

For those schools that do commit to farm to school, Ratcliffe says it typically takes three years to work out the kinks and establish a reliable, local supply chain.

Farm to Preschool

It took about that long for the Springfield, Mass., program to find its stride. Buying local has saved the 10 child-care centers, which feed more than 2,000 children, about 32 percent in produce costs, while generating about $30,000 in sales for local farms and the local distributor they use.

The transition hasn’t been effortless, however. When Collins visits the pantry of one child-care center she works with, she is disappointed to see industrial-sized cans of fruit cocktail on the shelves. She explains that if the distributor forgets to send the schools the sheet with that week’s local produce offerings, a food service worker is likely to order the canned and frozen produce. It doesn’t take much to slip back into old ways.

“You think they are in,” she says, “but one thing changes, and they are back to the vendor relationship that they had for 20 years prior.”

Yet Collins is undaunted. “We know that these kids are eating [the fresh produce] and that they will go home and tell their parents about it. So we’re committed to figuring it out.”

Photo: Steven VoteCollins, who served as a project manager on the Shape Up Somerville project and is a consultant to the Children in Balance Initiative, two Friedman School-led programs that take a multipronged approach to preventing childhood obesity, knows that serving good food in school cafeterias is only part of the solution.

“It’s got to go along with parent education, professional development for staff and providing equipment and infrastructure,” she says.

When Collins surveyed the Springfield parents about what would help them serve more fruits and vegetables at home, they said they couldn’t commit to farm shares, and farmer’s markets were too hard to get to. So she arranged with a local farm to create a mobile farmer’s market. A bus brings fresh fruits and vegetables to the child-care centers once a week, usually toward the end of the day, so parents can pick up their children and something for dinner at the same time. She is also leading an effort to bring a full-line grocery store into the neighborhood of the King Street Square One child-care center, which lacks one.

Farm-to-preschool programs aren’t necessarily that attractive to farmers, because little kids have little bellies, and the produce orders aren’t as large as they would be for a high school. “Yet we know we have to start in preschool,” Collins says. “When you try to change things through the K-12 system, a lot of what you get is the kids won’t eat it.”

Preschool, she says, is the right age for kids to discover they like zucchini. When these kids get to kindergarten, she wants them “banging on the cafeteria table,” demanding fresh fruits and vegetables. “They are an adorable, tricky population,” she says, “but once you’ve got them, you’ve got them.”

This story first appeared in the Winter 2013 Tufts Nutrition magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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