Towards a community-based school food system

Final Report for LNE03-183

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $76,388.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Tom Kelly
UNH Office of Sustainability
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Project Information

Summary:

The mission of NH Farm to School (NH FTS) is to create a sustainable and expandable business and educational program that connects New Hampshire farms and farm products to New Hampshire classrooms and cafeterias. The objective is to replace the currently fragmented and disconnected food system with one that integrates local agricultural production, school food procurement, and curriculum into a coherent whole. If successful, a community-based, community-supported school food system will emerge. Research based and action oriented, NH FTS combines economics and education, is simultaneously bottom-up (farmers, local school districts) and top-down (New Hampshire Department of Education) and involves multiple stakeholders in determining and making needed changes in current food and educational systems to the benefit of students and farmers alike.

Program activities: a Program Leadership Team (PLT) of key stakeholders supported by a program manager and program assistant; a detailed assessment of opportunities and barriers for New Hampshire produced foods; cross-disciplinary civic agriculture curriculum integration into K-12 public schools; farm to school program demonstrations providing New Hampshire apples to New Hampshire school children; teacher, food service and administrator workshops to create and integrate farm to school curriculum; a Farm-to-School web site; non-formal education/marketing materials; a report on findings and recommendations for expansion to other farm products; evaluation.

Introduction:

Get Smart! Eat Local! resounds in every crisp crunch of fresh apple munching heard in the corridors, classrooms and cafeterias of New Hampshire schools. New Hampshire’s Farm to School’s motto speaks to its accomplishment of creating a business and educational connection between farms and schools by focusing on a single local product: apples.

The decision to tap into existing apple distribution and school procurement systems to offer schools small, New Hampshire grown 140 count apples and later, cider, created a cost-effective entry point for farmers and schools to make a market connection. Farmers got a fair price for an undervalued product and a steady, easily accessible market. Schools got a nutritious, locally grown food product and an educational opportunity.

Apples were just what those concerned about children’s and the apple industry’s health ordered: good nutrition and learning experience for kids; a good market and community recognition for farmers.

NH FTS, a collaboration of UNH’s Office of Sustainability and the New Hampshire Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture, received initial funding from Northeast SARE in 2003 for a three-year pilot program. Working with apple growers, school food service directors and produce distributors, NH FTS re-established a trade connection between New Hampshire apples and New Hampshire schools that had been missing since 50’s and 60’s and that is able to function independently of NH FTS oversight. Today, children in more than half of New Hampshire’s schools have the opportunity to crunch on locally grown Macs, Galas or Empires, and drink preservative-free cider, all fresh from the cafeteria.

Equally important, New Hampshire children also have the opportunity to learn about nutrition and sustainability from the local apple: how to make healthy food choices; where food comes from; how eating local is a smart move. The NH FTS website at www.nhfarmtoschool.org provides free downloadable promotional materials, curriculum, farm visit guides and other resources for food service staff, parents, farmers, school board members and people from the community.

Performance Target:

School districts representing 30% of New Hampshire’s school children will make a farm to school cafeteria/curriculum apple connection creating a new market opportunity for at least two of the state’s six primarily wholesale orchards and at least three retail orchards, thereby contributing to agriculture that is diversified and profitable and that has a positive influence on communities. The target volume is 2,500 cases (one case =30 lbs) of apples per year, conservatively estimated at $30,000.
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Research

Materials and methods:

Approach: Create a Farm to School program to provide schools with apples and education and growers with a profitable market.

Method: Working with members of the New Hampshire Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture, develop a strong, supportive partnership among businesses and organizations with a stake in agriculture and in school food programs; ensure that NH FTS actions by growers, distributors and schools occur without creating dependence on NH FTS staff; and produce a detailed, easy-to-navigate web-based resource for schools, growers, distributors, and parents.

Design: NH FTS was developed and implemented by an involved Program Leadership Team (PLT) of key stakeholders supported by a program manager, a program assistant, and the UNH Office of Sustainability Food and Society Initiative. A long-term commitment by UNH Office of Sustainability ensures on-going farm to school efforts beyond the life of the SARE program. A Farm-to-School web page, maintained by the Office of Sustainability and linked with similar programs across the country, provides a statewide source of continuing program information.

Materials/activities: 1) Workshops for students, teachers, food service, administrators; 2) Exhibits; 3) Resource Kits for teachers, administrators, food service directors, and nurses; 4) Posters; 5) Harvest celebration; 6) www.nhfarmtoschool.org.

Research results and discussion:

Year One milestones:

1. 13 (six wholesale and seven retail) apple growers are invited to meet with food service directors in June 2003 to review the apple component of the Farm to School Assessment and make recommendations for solving systemic issues.

2. In August 2003, five (three wholesale and two retail) apple growers meet with food service directors to discuss size, variety, volume, other specifications, price and delivery options; at least one grower will complete a year I supply contract.

3. In the summer 2003, two growers participate in a curriculum workshop with school district teams to discuss apples, the challenges of family farming in today’s economy, and ways to support local farmers. These perspectives will be integrated into curriculum plans.

From the outset, the Program Leadership Team (PLT) provided input and support to defining the program scope and approach, the review of marketing/educational materials and program implementation. NH FTS was introduced to schools through teacher and food service conferences and newsletters with the assistance of the New Hampshire State Department of Education and the New Hampshire Food Service Association, and with the leadership and example of a committed food service director.

The project began with efforts to develop a cost-effective system to deliver local apples to New Hampshire schools that considered school food service and apple grower needs and capacities. Meetings were held with school food service and distribution sources to work out specification and delivery issues. New Hampshire apple producers with controlled-atmosphere storage capacity were contacted and invited to participate in a pilot farm-to-school apple program. Three wholesale producers and one retail grower agreed to launch the program; of these, one grower supplied apples (Macintosh packed 140 to the case) to the program because volume was less than two pallets, and cider (in pint-sized sports bottles) to a school produce distributor for delivery to 11 school districts. The program was designed to continue through the winter as long as quality supply is available, with schools receiving start-up and close-down notices. It was launched with a direct mailing to principals, school nutritionists, and food service directors introducing the Farm to School program (mission, goals, etc.); presentations to school food service directors and staff at professional development conferences; personal calls and e-mails to schools from PLT and New Hampshire Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture members.

Follow-up calls with the distributor, the grower, and participating schools throughout the school year indicated very strong satisfaction with the apple program. Word-of-mouth communication among food service directors facilitated program expansion. According to food service directors, the powerful motivation came from the positive response of kids to the newly available fresh local apples and cider.

Efforts to distinguish New Hampshire apples in the cafeteria and introduce NH FTS to students and staff included non-formal educational/marketing posters using a Get Smart: Eat Local theme. Photographs for the posters were shot in the fall at the participating orchard and featured kids enjoying apples. These were distributed to all participating schools.

An inventory of K-12 civic agriculture and sustainability programming was undertaken and provided the basis for compilation of educational materials, now posted on the web, and curriculum for teacher workshops offered through the UNH Department of Continuing Education. The first “Developing a Farm to School Curriculum for Your Classroom” was followed by “Linking the Classroom, Cafeteria, and Local Agriculture through the New Hampshire Farm to School Program.” Both workshops drew K-12 educators from all disciplines, food service directors, nurses, registered dietitians, and school administrators. Participants were introduced to a broad range of materials and resources encompassing agriculture, nutrition, and rural development, as well as literature, poetry, and art, and were guided in their efforts to develop their own curriculum and celebrations that link students to the local New Hampshire food system. Using an interactive, hands-on format the workshops helped people explore alternative approaches to linking classroom activities with cafeteria and lunchroom experiences, with field trips to local farms and farmers’ markets, and with school gardens.

A New Hampshire Farm to School web site was designed and established at www.NHFarmtoSchool.org.

The NH FTS program concluded the 2003-2004 school year in May 2004 with 70 schools in 20 districts participating in the program. Together these schools purchased 850 cases of apples (140/case), 1615 cases of cider in pints (24/case) and 185 cases of cider in gallons (4/case).

A formal telephone survey of Year One school food service participants was conducted in March 2004 to evaluate Year One efforts and to gather information to enable the NH FTS program to assess opportunities and barriers for other New Hampshire produced foods in the schools. The survey asked questions about 1) food service economics, staff and kitchen facility capacity to use fresh farm products, procurement procedures and menu development; 2) interest in other locally produced foods; 3) satisfaction with the farm to school program; 4) the value of local farm products to schools. Respondents indicated very strong satisfaction with the apples distributed through the program. Apple quality was reported as excellent, as was reception by students. School needs for other products and the desired form (i.e. pre-cut, peeled, etc) were determined along with interest in materials, workshops, special events, orchard visits, etc. Food service directors expressed a strong interest in obtaining local products. School volume, distribution, processing and packaging needs were noted as important barriers and many of the desired products are not produced in New Hampshire in the wholesale quantities need by the school produce distribution system.

Milestones were reached in part because the system developed to supply New Hampshire apples to New Hampshire schools fit the needs of schools and growers. Schools were able to order FTS apples and cider as part of their regular produce orders and receive the apples from their regular distributor. One apple grower was able to efficiently supply apples and cider to one produce distributor for delivery to schools in the southeastern part of the state; the wholesale growers agreed that volume was not sufficient to warrant entry of another grower into the program. Because the participating grower was supplying both cider and apples and had a weekly sales route that passed the distributor’s warehouse, Year One volume was sufficient to warrant his continued participation. Retail growers expressed interest in being part of educational and marketing efforts that would connect their farms to schools through student and family pick-your-own visits. The NH FTS program provided posters and other materials to retail growers who developed supply contracts directly with schools.

Another factor was the leadership of the PLT. The support from the New Hampshire Department of Education, along with a food service director who championed the effort, helped the program gain acceptance by schools; the support from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets helped gain grower participation; support from the North Country RC&D helped secure distributor participation.

Year Two Milestones

4. 58 growers and all New Hampshire school districts receive the first year report and 10 new growers and five new districts express interest in Year II.

5. At least two wholesale growers working with at least three retail growers commit to Year II apple contracts.

The Year Two program was launched in mid-August. Staff conducted a NH FTS workshop at the food service directors’ summer meeting, followed by a direct mailing to principals, school nutritionists, and food service directors. A new poster was created for elementary school children. An exhibit and workshop presented at the Food Service Association annual conference added to educational and publicity efforts.

The 2004-2005 school year got off to a great start, with apple volume by October 21 reported at 340 cases and cider at 675 cases, well ahead of the previous year and with three retail growers participating in NH FTS. In November 2004, the NH FTS program launched distribution in the southwestern part of the state with a new wholesale apple grower and a new distributor. As of December 2004, more than 190 schools were providing apples and cider to students. Additionally, NH FTS made an important link to the state’s healthy vending initiative to include apples and cider in school vending machines.

NH FTS organized a New Hampshire Farm to School Harvest Celebration Week. Culminating in October, the event encouraged schools to form multidisciplinary teacher/food service teams to create a week of learning activities that made the farm to school connection. The celebration was supported by an official Governor’s proclamation. Producer involvement was encouraged through articles in the state’s agriculture newsletter and a direct mailing to retail apple growers.

Other educational initiatives included the development of a Farm to School poster for the Northeast SARE Conference and workshops on Farm to School at the Soul of Agriculture Conference at UNH, the New Hampshire Farm Museum, and the New Hampshire Farm and Forest Expo. The program linked with another SARE program directed at institutional buying to share the New Hampshire experience with others in the region.

NH FTS ended the 2004-2005 school year in May 2005 with 230 schools in the program (vs. 70 the year before) from 44 districts (vs. 20 the year before), as coverage expanded to include western as well as eastern NH. These schools purchased 1400 cases of apples, 2454 cases of pints (24 pints/case) and 140 cases of cider gallons (4 per case) from two distributors who in turn purchased products from two wholesale growers. In addition local apple supply contracts were arranged by three smaller retail growers. More than 108,000 NH students had access to fresh apples and cider in their cafeterias. Thus our performance target was reached a year ahead of schedule.

Year Three Milestone

6. Apple growers sustain and expand the program in Year III to achieve the performance target.

Just as the 2004-2005 school year was winding down, we learned that the orchard providing all the cider and most of the apples for the eastern side of the state was going out of business. Thanks in part to the grower’s enthusiasm for the program and the volume reached in Year Two, several orchards came forward and indicated their interest in making sure the program continued in Year Three and after the SARE project ends. Growers noted that supplying the 2005-2006 school year would be difficult because the 140-count apple crop was short. Together they determined how to work in concert to ensure deliveries to the schools. One orchard used school and related vending market opportunity as the basis for adding pasteurization and expanding his cider operation to include pints. The new cider is preservative free, making it accessible for children with allergies. The shorter shelf life (two weeks vs. six) created order and stocking problems for distributors and food service staff until they learned how to treat the cider as a perishable requiring small, more frequent orders. Apple distribution in the northern part of the state was accomplished in fall of 2005 with the addition of a new wholesale orchard located in the northern part of the state.

The educational component of NH FTS continued to provide children, teachers and food service staff with posters, programs and instructional materials, Even though apple/cider distribution was not available to all schools, educational resources were shared with all schools in the state. The NH FTS web site at www.NHFarmtoSchool.org was revamped to improve ease of use and continues to be an important communications tool and repository of information.

Outreach efforts were expanded. To date NH FTS has developed relationships with:
New Hampshire DOE
New Hampshire School Principals Association
New Hampshire School Board Association
New Hampshire School Administrators Association
NEA -New Hampshire
Reinventing the Meal
5 A Day
North Country Health Consortium
The Coop Food Stores (Lebanon and Hanover, New Hampshire)
Newmarket Heritage Festival
New Hampshire School Food Service Association
New Hampshire Apple Growers
New Hampshire Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom
CFSC
Vital Communities
Dover Apple Festival

In addition to programs for schools and towns, NH FTS gave workshops to: New Hampshire School Principals Association, New Hampshire School Food Service Association, New Hampshire Beginner Farmers, and the NEA-New Hampshiure Teachers Conference.

NH FTS also began telling our story to others in the farm-to-school community around the region and the country. We gave workshops, presented and/or displayed information at the Community Food Security Coalition’s Annual Conference, the Maine Farm to School Meeting, Pennsylvania Food Trust Meeting, New England Farmers’ Market Coalition Conference, and the National Farm to School conference. Our info booth at the New England Vegetable and Fruit Growers Annual Meeting was well received. Our partnership with the SARE Institutional Buying program extended our story to others in the region.

As a result of NH FTS’s accomplishments, the program was selected as the Northeast Regional Lead Agency (RLA) for an initiative to establish a National Farm to School Network. RLAs coordinated the gathering of information on farm-to-school programs in the Northeast, and led the process of assembling a set of recommendations on what function a national network would serve.

At the state’s USDA commodities program request, NH FTS did a presentation on the program for all the New England directors at the annual USDA Distribution Conference in 2006. We facilitated test marketing for a new apple product for schools: Grab Bags. This 2 oz. package of pre-sliced apples was enthusiastically received by kids, especially when we paired it with another New England product (containing New Hampshire milk, of course), Cabot cheese. The product was picked up by the commodities program for distribution to schools. Through our relationship with Vital Communities we were able to get New Hampshire apples into Dartmouth College cafeterias. The University of New Hampshire also incorporates apples and cider into their dining halls and special events.

As the 2006-2007 school year began, growers and distributors continued the apple and cider program and the University of New Hampshire added cider to its menu offerings with minimal assistance from NH FTS. NH FTS will continue monitor the grower-distributor-school connections and provide educational programming to New Hampshire schools.

With support from the Josephine A. Lamprey, Otto, and Thanksgiving Funds of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, NH FTS has now launched a new pilot project in the two counties in southern New Hampshire to connect local fruit and vegetable farms to schools in their communities.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

In order to succeed this project had to reach three key groups: apple growers, produce distributors and schools.

Outreach to apple growers was accomplished with the help of the state’s agriculture department and the grower member of the NH FTS leadership team. Outreach activities included personal letters, phone calls, and e-mail, and presentations by growers at trade meetings. The combination of methods proved successful in spreading the word about NH FTS, creating a supportive, positive industry buzz and recruiting grower participation.

Outreach to produce distributors was similarly direct—personal phone calls and follow-up meetings—and was effective in gaining commitment and cooperation.

As for schools, an important aspect contributing to project effectiveness was the purposeful design of the NH FTS’s educational component as a program that could be integrated into on-going activities and concerns (e.g. obesity), whether in the classroom, the cafeteria, etc. rather than as an add-on to the school day or curriculum. Outreach and publications efforts aimed to 1) inform, 2) connect to professional/personal interests and 3) direct food service directors and teachers to a point of contact—a phone number to talk with a person; the web site. Activities included: 1) in-school and off-site workshops 2) conference exhibits/tabling; 3) resource kits; 4) posters; 5) Harvest Celebration 6) direct mailings; 7) e-mail; and most important and most effective, 8) personal contact: face to face, by phone and school visits.

Food service directors reported that the posters enlivened the cafeteria and were well received by students and staff; they valued NH FTS as a way to introduce healthy foods and achieve nutritional goals. Teachers appreciated having a catalogue of materials and programs they could use as is or adapt. Nurses welcomed ideas for integrating and coordinating their health work with that of teachers and food service.

Support from the food service director and state School Nutrition Program director members of the leadership team was invaluable to outreach efforts. Both opened their professional networks to the program, invited NH FTS participation at conferences and encouraged schools to get on board.

Get Smart Eat Local outreach materials and program resources are available on the web site: www.nhfarmtoschool.org.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

As noted above, the project reached its performance target in Year 2. The project reached all the apple growers (58) in the state, helped four large growers develop schools as a new wholesale market, one regional apple wholesaler to launch a new product for schools, one grower to expand his cider operations, and three smaller growers make local farm to school connections. Growers in the state now know that schools are a market for New Hampshire apples and they know how to access that market.

School Food Service

Operating a school food service program is very difficult–demands are great; budgets are tight; regulations are complex. The NH FTS program gave directors a simple way to make a desired change. While other changes will be more difficult, with one success accomplished, directors are willing to explore other ideas. NH FTS served the role of catalyst in encouraging and supporting food service directors efforts to change school meal and snack menus. Many schools are now ready to try new products and work directly with farms as vendors. Perceived barriers, such as a widely held belief that it was somehow not possible for schools to buy local products and that local products could not be economical, were transformed.

Other impacts:

1. Positive changes are built on the development of trust and respect among schools, growers, and distributors. Through listening carefully to each other’s needs and proceeding thoughtfully, schools, growers, and distributors found their common interest, made minor adjustments to individual ways of operating, created relationships and used the power of pride in their accomplishment to energize, expand, and sustain the program.

2. Start with the familiar: working with existing systems used by schools and growers made the first change—to order New Hampshire apples— easier; other, more difficult changes can follow.

3. Champions are powerful change agents. The Department of Education School Nutrition Program Director, a Food Service Director, a distributor and an apple grower’s commitment to the project helped make it work.

4. Peer-to peer-communication is powerful in spreading change. The testimony of early adopters, from both growers and food services, lead others to join the program and began a snowball effect.

5. Resources work best for schools. By providing resources, rather than a program for schools to implement, NH FTS successfully integrated Farm to School educational messages into classrooms and cafeterias. Connecting resources to state curriculum guidelines and making them easily accessible on an as-needed basis adds to their usefulness. Integrate Farm to School messages into classrooms and cafeterias by providing resources rather than a program to implement. Make appropriate resources available to schools.

6. Timing is critical. Growers were looking for profitable markets and schools were looking for ways to boost nutrition through healthy foods and education. NH FTS fit with a national conversation about improving the nutritional foundations of school food service programs, with concerns about the economic stresses affecting the state’s apple industry, and with emerging public understanding about the values of buying local.

7. Go slow, and understand and respect parameters of all parties. Changes come incrementally and in different, site-specific ways.

NH FTS learned from the apple experience that food service directors need models, peer support, and professional validation in order to make changes. Farmers do too. Thanks to support of the Piscataqua region of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, NH FTS will next launch a pilot project to model farm to school connections at the community level in eight Rockingham and Strafford County School Districts. Combined, these school districts include over 15,000 students. The two counties contain some of the best agricultural soils in the state, experience the greatest pressure for development, and have seen a growth in the number of small farms focused on direct marketing. Developing direct school marketing connections would add income, provide for diversity of sales, allow for expansion, and open opportunity for new farming ventures.

Farmer Adoption

This year the apple and cider program started up without the involvement of NH FTS. The grower took steps to educate both schools and the distributor about the perishable nature of pasteurized, preservative-free cider; both now know to order more frequently and in smaller amounts to ensure proper shelf live. The grower worked independently to expand school markets for cider to include the University of New Hampshire. Orchards in several other towns have made independent arrangements to supply schools in their communities with apples. Grower acceptance of the NH FTS apple program is also seen in cooperative efforts to provide schools with small, 140 apples in the last two years of short supply.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

This project focused on a single commodity wholesale relationship: grower to distributor to school. The next area of research is to assess the issues involved with developing sustainable local farm to school direct market relationships at the local level.

Greens are in: Work in high schools points to potential opportunity for farms to develop greenhouse business growing salad greens for schools, restaurants and other institutions.

Policy work is needed at the local school board level and at the state level to support buy local purchasing.

Comparative regional and national research is needed to assess various farm to school models and extract best practices that can be applied by individual programs to improve and sustain them.

Research on farmer participation in farm to school projects is necessary to determine the social and economic impacts of this market, as well as how to sustain and/or improve the benefits to farmers.

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.