Farm to School brings local foods to students

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School is back in session, and kids all around the county are finding something different on their lunch trays – local foods and new recipes, all part of the county’s new Farm to School program.

The revised menus feature more than 25 different locally grown vegetables and fruits, funded by a grant through the Farm to School buying program coordinated by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE).

“The idea behind it has been how can we leverage institutions to help support local farmers and grow their businesses in a wholesale sense?” said CCE Farm to School Coordinator Chloe Boutelle. “For schools, it’s a great opportunity to try to get fresh vegetables into their cafeterias, and it’s an equalizing factor for kids who might not be able to get fresh vegetables outside of school.”

It’s not a new idea – having local ingredients in area schools – but the Farm to School program ensures that local foods will be on school menus in all seven districts at least twice a month, with some districts nearly every day, according to a recent press release. This provides over 11,000 K-12 students with access to healthier foods grown by local farmers.

The county Farm to School program is in an effort to put schools within reach of the “30% initiative” benchmark under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s No Student Goes Hungry Program.

According to the governor’s website, the No Student Goes Hungry Program provides an incentive for schools to use more local products, so schools that purchase at least 30% of their ingredients from New York farms will receive a 25-cents-per-meal reimbursement, in contrast to the current 5.9 cents.

Putting local schools over that benchmark is a win-win, Boutelle said, as it helps the schools save money, provides kids with healthier, local meals and benefits area farmers.

“Farmers benefit from a community connection with students and knowing they’re supporting their schools,” she said. “If it says that their farm’s food is in the cafeteria, … it’s building that relationship.”

Every month, there will be featured, “Harvest-of-the-Month” recipes, with September’s including tomato and cucumber salad and ratatouille, according to the press release.

School food directors in Dryden, Groton, Ithaca, Lansing, Newfield, New Roots and Trumansburg worked collaboratively to facilitate the purchase of locally produced ingredients through a geographic preference bid awarded to two New York-based businesses, Headwater Foods of Rochester and Slate Foods of New York City, according to the release.

These food distributors work with farmers across the state, including some in Tompkins County like Stick and Stone, Remembrance Farms and Ithaca Soy.

A grant of $92,829 to CCE from the No Student Goes Hungry initiative will fund the Tompkins County Farm to School for two years, per the press release.

The Farm to School program was implemented also in cooperation with the Park Foundation, Cornell’s Master of Public Health Program and Tompkins Cortland Community College’s Coltivare Culinary Center.

Rosemarie Hanson, director of school nutrition and Farm to School at Trumansburg Central School District, said the Farm to School program is largely beneficial for getting kids to enjoy healthy school meals.

“It really gets kids thinking about where their food comes from, and they realize that there are people who do a lot of work to put food on their plate,” Hanson said in an email. “It changes the perception of what school food is.”

And the kids aren’t the only ones who benefit, Hanson said.

“We are lucky in Trumansburg to be surrounded by so many family farms, restaurants and food businesses,” she said. “I buy as much as I can directly from local Trumansburg farmers. … I feel like we connect with our community when we buy local foods.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of challenges, though, she said.

“The variety of produce available is great in September and October,” she said. “Part of the challenge is convincing kids to try some of the unusual vegetables that are available to us in winter, like watermelon radishes and beets.”

That’s where Coltivare comes in. A $29,000 grant from the Park Foundation allowed Tompkins Cortland Community College’s culinary center to provide training for local school food service workers on how to prepare and serve fresher, healthier and tastier meals for schoolchildren.

The “boot camp,” which included 40 food service workers from districts around the county, lasted for three days at Coltivare, where Executive Chef Patrick Blackman led the instruction. At the end of the program, food service workers used what they had learned to prepare the meal at the closing ceremony.

Hason said she received training through this boot camp, and the experience was invaluable to being able to put Farm to School into practice.

Coltivare Director of Operations Jason Sidle said the boot camp was a natural offshoot of a training Coltivare did with Groton food service workers about a year before, training which he considered an overwhelming success.

“Once the eyes that be saw that, they were like, ‘OK, this is really great,” Sidle said. “It has great outcomes. How do we grow this and do more of it?’”

The training program’s previous success primed the way for the much larger boot camp, and despite a large class and a short time to learn, Sidle and Blackman said it was more than worth it, with many participants learning quickly and expressing their gratitude after the experience.

“Overall, as a group, I heard a lot of good things,” Blackman said. “They all enjoyed themselves. They all took something away from each day.”

Blackman learned a lot through the experience as well, he said. Providing healthy food for kids is significantly different from what he’s used to – serving delicious dishes to adults.

“The regulations that the schools have to go through to provide lunch for the kids is drastically different from what we go through,” he said. “This allowed me to really hone in and really get back into the nutritional value of things.”

Providing new and interesting recipes for schools gets kids interested in their food, and they can bring that mindset home with them, Boutelle said. This can help make entire families healthier, which is the larger goal of Farm to School.

“Our long-term goal is to actually get families involved in classrooms in education and improving the diet quality of families,” she said.

Healthier food means better performance in class, Blackman said.

“Healthier food, locally grown food that’s taken care of with care that’s fresh and hopefully organic … it can actually increase your mental productivity,” he said. “Students are more alert and attentive and awake.”

Blackman said that, in the future, Coltivare would like to do more training with area food service workers but on a more one-on-one basis to get down to what each school district needs the most.

“That way, we can really hone in on what they really need to improve on … to make better lunches at their own place,” Blackman said. “Every school is different, ... so what happens is they all have different needs.”

Boutelle said the Farm to School program is a large initiative that has required a lot of planning and cooperation, and she is continuously impressed with the collaboration between schools, Coltivare and others.

“I’m just so happy and amazed about how well people have come together to make this happen,” she said. “The staff at all these schools, they’re so important. ... They put in so much hard work. … And they’re willing to put in more labor now to make this happen.”

Local farmers are encouraged to contact Chloe Boutelle at (607) 272-2292 if they are interested in selling products to Tompkins County schools. In November of this year, she will be putting out a bid for products that the schools will want from February to June 2020.

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