Final Report for FW09-016

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $14,600.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Laura Plaut
Common Threads Farm
Expand All

Project Information

Abstract:

The original intention of this project was to identify what niche, if any, small-scale producers could play in the opportunities for vending to local school districts presented by the Washington State “Local Farms Healthy Kids” Legislation.

Crop trials, season extension and a focus on providing other producers with the tools needed to most effectively vend to school districts were all part of the originally proposed scope of work.

Introduction

Local Farms, Healthy Kids – but what about the food service “system?”

Almost immediately upon embarking on this project it became apparent how very ill-prepared School District Food Service Managers were to source local food. (Parenthetically, it is worth mentioning that several of the grant reviewers speculated that this would be the case!) Unless and until food service staff were more willing and able to source locally grown produce, much of the work plan of this project would be irrelevant.

It was simply not in the existing culture or practices of food service staff to source local food – let alone local food from small-scale producers. In general, the food service managers (there are nine school districts in Whatcom County) were all accustomed to “one-stop” shopping through Food Services of America or Cisco, and this method of sourcing food was easier, cheaper and more familiar to them than sourcing food locally.

The thrust of the project consequently shifted from the originally proposed field trials and farmer workshops to concerted efforts working with food service staff, parents, teachers and district administrators to shift the culture of school purchasing practices. As good fortune would have it, receipt of SARE funding for this project coincided almost perfectly with an upswell of interest in, and support, for Farm to School initiatives within Whatcom County. Much of the work reported in “Accomplishments” below is work that I was a part of but can by no means claim sole responsibility for.

Through this Western SARE-funded project, I have had the opportunity to become part of an impressive and enduring team of parents, farmers and educators working to get more local, fresh, sustainably grown food into schools.

Project Objectives:
Start where we are, rather than where we would wish ourselves to be

Because the focus of this project shifted so dramatically toward working with food service staff and school district systems to find ways that they could accommodate locally grown produce, none of the field trials and season extending strategies were implemented.

Honestly, I do not see this as a “failure” of the project, but rather as a realistic reorientation of the project to address the bottleneck that was represented by food service staff not knowing how to deal with and/or not being willing to source local food. My choice to delay – indefinitely – field trials and season extension strategies, was very much in keeping with the original feedback of one of the grant reviewers who recommended that I delay “the start of the vegetable production phase until (I) know more precisely what the real questions are that will face the small producer for taking advantage of this great opportunity.” This reviewer was right on the money!

During the funding period of this grant, I have:

• Served as a volunteer member of the Bellingham Farm to School Advisory Committee (and I continue to serve in this capacity)

• Provided coordination for the Farm to School efforts in the Ferndale School District

• Launched a county-wide school garden collective, recognizing that getting kids engaged experientially in growing and preparing food is a way to build demand for and appreciation of more locally sourced foods in the school meal programs

• Helped to create the infrastructure and educational materials for getting food service staff, parent volunteers, teachers, administrators and students more ready for locally sourced foods.

Other exciting things that have happened (but for which I do not claim any credit):

• A local philanthropist has invested heavily in Farm to School (including the school garden project referenced above), resulting in a proliferation of pilot projects, all of which are in the process (we hope) of creating the “perfect storm” for changing the culture of Farm to School in Whatcom County. See http://www.whatcomcf.org/Farm_to_School2.html

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Colleen Burrows

Research

Materials and methods:
If the problem isn’t one of production, then neither is the solution

The methodology of this project has been distinctly non-agricultural. It has involved attending countless meetings with food service staff, working with community members (parents and farmers largely) to advocate for and brainstorm cost-effective and sustainable ways of getting more local produce into schools, providing taste tests and conducting student satisfaction surveys in cafeterias, and presenting to Parent Teacher Associations, Principals, Superintendents and School Boards on the value of and opportunities for connecting kids with local food.

Concurrent to the efforts above, several local farmers have been working to build more of a relationship with the food service staff. GAP certification, obtaining increased product liability insurance and finding creative methods for delivery of produce have all been part of these efforts, but I would not say that any of this efforts have yet met with anything that begins to approximate large-scale, replicable success.

Research results and discussion:
We are celebrating “baby steps!”

I believe the jury is still out on the long-term outcome and impacts of Farm to School efforts (including mine) in Whatcom County. What is clear at this point is that there is strong and growing parent demand for locally sourced food, and that many farmers have an interest in growing for the school district.

One of the things that has been most exciting over the past several years has been the organizing efforts that have allowed a forum for parents to give voice to their belief in serving local foods in school.

As a community, we have also come a long ways toward identifying (and in rare cases addressing) some of obstacles (real and perceived) to sourcing local food for schools. For instance, the Bellingham School District Food Service Director has been amazing in his willingness to provide the Farm to School advocacy group with detailed cost and labor analysis comparing sourcing more local food with his current practices, and thereby helping us to understand the challenges from his perspective.

There is no aspect of this project where I could say, “Yes, mission accomplished!” Shifting the culture of food in schools will be a slow, long process.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The originally stated goals of this project were to provide outreach to other producers through several venues including:

1. A website for dissemination of general information and facts.

2. A “field day” where we would share our learning regarding season extension and production of school-friendly varieties, economies of scale and how best to leverage the Local Farms, Healthy Kids Initiative.

3. A toolkit including “age specific” lesson plans and educational materials, an information packet on what is required to become a supplier for the Local Farms Healthy Kids program, as well as a “how to” guide for hosting an on farm education day.

4. A supplement containing information on year-round cropping methods, materials, crops selections and use of greenhouses and cloches.

Of these original goals, the first is being met (but I do not take credit for this) through a combination of the Whatcom Farm to School website: http://www.whatcomcf.org/Farm_to_School2.html#farmtoschoolresources, and the WSDA Farm to School website: http://agr.wa.gov/Marketing/Farmtoschool/ .

It is worth noting that the WSDA farm to school program has been eliminated as of July 2011 due to budget cuts – this is discouraging news!

The second through fourth never happened, as it became so apparent that the problems lay with food service personnels’ ability to accommodate local produce into their program rather than farmers’ ability to grow local produce and make it available for purchase.

Our approach to agricultural education, originally oriented toward farm field trips, became redirected toward school gardens, largely because we identified this as a more cost effective way to reach out to many children and begin to reform farm to school experientially by exposing children to local, healthy foods that they were able to have a hand in growing and preparing right on their school grounds. This approach also made sense in tight budgetary times when field trips of any sort – whether to a farm or to a theater – are becoming harder to come by. Finally, it made sense because it literally put local food “in the faces” of district administrators and risk managers and stimulated conversations about best agricultural practices when dealing with local food that does not come pre-washed and bagged.

I have attached to the potential contributions component of this report:

A newspaper article about the “Ferndale fries” effort that I helped to spearhead. It was amazing and humbling that a year’s worth of advocacy in the Ferndale district yielded only this one day/one product/one school result. In spite of my impatience, the success of this project has definitely been a building block for this year’s more comprehensive efforts.

The Dirt on Food article about Common Threads’ hands-on cooking and gardening programs for kids. More and more, food service staff and parent advocates are recognizing that it is not enough to simply start serving new foods to kids – there also needs to be an experiential piece that gets kids excited about trying them. This is the piece that Common Threads will continue to work on.

The poster that features the Harvest of the Month items that have been agreed upon by all of the School Food Service Directors in Whatcom County – I did not produce these posters, but was part of the conversations and planning that led to this approach.

The Harvest of the Month powerpoints that have been made available to teachers as a way of connecting the classroom with the cafeteria and enlisting teachers’ help in building some excitement and understanding about some of the local produce that they are seeing in the cafeteria. Again, I do not take credit for this work, only for being part of the team that created this product.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Progress has been made with farmers, food service personnel and students

The WSDA has developed guidelines for farmers wanting to sell to schools that go a long toward addressing questions of liability insurance, delivery, quantity, price, etc. that schools are bound to have for any farmer from whom they purchase: http://www.wafarmtoschool.org/Page/31/Getting-Started-with-Farm-to-School

Locally in Whatcom County, the Farm to School support team has worked to develop a matrix that identifies farmers that they feel have the capacity to supply school districts. Unfortunately, this list does not yet include small-scale producers, but it is an appropriate baby step in helping food service staff to become more comfortable in sourcing local food.

Through my SARE-supported work, I am aware that there are many small-scale producers who would like, in theory, to supply schools with produce. Given the various issues that the school districts are still grappling with related to product liability insurance, volume, price and delivery issues, there has not yet been a clear way for these small scale producers to become involved as vendors. I believe the role for small-scale providers will eventually be through some sort of cooperative that pools produce and delivers it to the school district food service staff.

Accomplishments with food service staff

The food service directors in all nine districts in Whatcom County have expressed (some more reluctantly than others) a willingness to work on sourcing more local, fresh, sustainably grown produce. This has largely been in response to increasingly strong and organized parent demand. During the 2011-2012 school year, all nine districts have committed to featuring a Harvest of the Month item (see attached poster). Getting clear on what items the districts were willing to serve and what could realistically be sourced locally (either fresh or frozen) during each month of the school year has involved a monumental amount of work.

Chef Garrett Berdan (http://www.garrettberdan.com/Garrett_Berdan/Welcome.html) developed recipes for each of the Harvest of the Month items. Recipes were selected for their ease of preparation and “kid-friendliness.” In August 2011, Chef Garrett provided several days’ worth of training to food service staff throughout the county. This included everything from knife skills (which food service staff either never had or have lost due to under use) to hands-on cooking followed by tasting and discussion. Although these days were fun and generally well-received by the food service staff (recipes are attached to this report), several months into the school year the recipes are not being used.

For both the cherry tomatoes in September and the broccoli and cauliflower in October, the featured produce item was served raw and undressed.

On-going “listening sessions” with food service staff and farm to school advocates (including me) are taking place. It has become clear how very underappreciated and overwhelmed food service staff already feel, even without being asked to invest time and energy in sourcing and preparing local foods.

Accomplishments with students

School gardens have been launched and sustained in 12 Whatcom County schools. Teachers and nutrition educators have commented that students in schools with gardens show a generally greater “food literacy” and willingness and interest in trying new foods.

Through the gardens, we are providing opportunities for kids to have hands-on gardening and cooking experiences, “priming the pump” so to speak for their openness to new foods in the cafeteria. The gardens have also stimulated policy conversation at a district level about how to handle fresh, local produce as the garden produce is frequently being consumed by students in the classroom.

Students are now being offered taste-tests of local produce once
a month (with the help of an army of parent volunteers), and the positive feedback from kids has, I believe, given the adults in charge of menu planning greater confidence that if they feature fresh, local produce it will get eaten, and will actually drive lunch participation rates up.

I presented to the Bellingham School Board on school gardens on the same night (and in collaboration with) the Food Service Director who presented on Farm to School efforts. At a school board level, attention to connections between healthy foods and good learning is being fostered in ways that will eventually trickle out (I believe) to stronger connections between local farms and schools.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

My learning over the past year and a half has been that getting local produce into school lunches (regardless of the size of the farm) will be an incredibly tough nut to crack. My greatest contribution has been in recognizing that Farm to School efforts will only be as good as the school food service staff and district administration want them to be, and in developing constructive working relationships with food service directors throughout the county.

My advocacy on behalf of local foods and on behalf of sourcing from smaller-scale producers will be on-going, even if it may not yield clear results for years to come.

The most hopeful outcome to date is that food service directors are recognizing how strongly and passionately parents feel about supporting local, healthy foods in the school lunch program.

Future Recommendations

School food service practices are deeply entrenched. Although success stories of connecting local farmers with school food service become more and more prevalent, the system is fraught with challenges that include everything from extremely tight budgetary restrictions to kitchens that are ill-equipped for anything other than “heat and serve” lunches to food service staff who are so worried about “pleasing their customer” that they hesitate to diverge from tried and true favorites such as pizza and chicken nuggets.

Getting more local food into schools – whether from producers large or small – will have to start with re-educating food service staff and with helping them to obtain the infrastructural support needed to source and serve local produce. It will also have to start (or continue) with reeducating children and their families about real food through taste tests, notes and menus sent home, and gradual reintroduction to whole, non-processed foods.

Although the funding period for this grant is at an end, my personal commitment – as a grower, parent, and educator – to helping to make sure that more local, fresh and sustainably grown foods is made available in schools has only just begun. I very much look forward to continued participation on the Farm to School advisory committees in the two school districts with which I am currently involved, as well as to my continued advocacy for and support of school gardens as a place where both the adults and children in schools can be reminded of the pleasures and importance of locally grown foods.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.