Final Report for LNE96-065
The Hartford Food System coordinated a team-led program from September 1996 through December 1997 to expand the increased use of Connecticut-grown and low-input produced fruits and vegetables served in the lunch program in four City of Hartford Public Schools. The project was carried out in cooperation with the Hartford Board of Education Food Service Program to maximize the use of local produce and to increase the staff’s capacity to prepare the produce for school lunches. A food education curriculum linked to the CT-grown produce used in the cafeteria was developed with participating teachers. The project worked with area farmers, produce brokers and a produce fresh-cut processor to address supply and distribution issues. Team members include professionals from the State Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension Service, local farmers, culinary professionals, nutritionists, educators, and the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association (NOFA/CT).
Connecticut imports 90% of its food, exporting dollars for agricultural products that could be grown in-state. Increasing dependence on cheap, imported produce has eliminated many local marketing outlets for farmers. Since World War II, the number of farmers has decreased from 22,000 to 3,500, while hunger rises among urban dwellers. Agricultural sustainability in this rapidly urbanizing state calls for the restoration of the local food system and development of local marketing opportunities that will keep farmers in business. The school lunch program is potentially a substantial and stable market for Connecticut farmers. Linking farmers with local schools is beneficial for both parties and supports USDA health and agricultural policy objectives to double the amount of produce purchased by the The National School Lunch Program (NSLP ) and the USDA commitment to increase the amount of organically or sustainably grown produce used in school meals by 25%. Buying local produce would give school children better access to fresher, tastier, and safer fruits and vegetables while simultaneously providing farmers with new market opportunities. With reduced marketing and transport costs, local farmers can offer competitive prices.
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which serves over 25 million school children daily, is a major factor in the nutritional health of 447,000 Connecticut school children, 26% of whom are eligible for free or reduced priced school meals. USDA surveys report that 35% of NSLP participants eat no fruit on an average day, while 25% eat no vegetables.
Farm Fresh Start, a 1995 pilot project in Hartford, CT, showed that children given hands-on food education increase their knowledge and acceptance of local fruits and vegetables served in the school cafeteria. The Hartford Food System (HFS) expanded the program in 1996-97 to increase use of local and sustainably grown produce in Hartford’s school lunch program through the Farm to School Food Education in four schools. Minor production changes allowed school cafeteria staff to use local produce in the menu. On average, produce cost 12% to 33% percent more than conventionally-grown imported items. Fruits cost an average of 7% less than imported equivalents.
The Farm to School Food Education project had the following objectives:
1. Implement an expansion program to increase the amount of Connecticut-grown and low-input produced fruits and vegetables used in the school lunch program in four City of Hartford Public Schools, which will purchase one-third of their fresh produce from Connecticut farmers (half of whom will be low-input growers), and with the target goal that by 1999 all of Hartford’s 32 schools will purchase at least 20% of their produce from Connecticut farmers.
2. Create demand for Connecticut-grown produce, especially low-input produce, by instituting a farm and food system curriculum in the Hartford Public Schools.
3. Create the capacity in the school food service cafeterias and their staff to prepare Connecticut-grown fruits and vegetables for school meals.
4. Replicate the project in public schools and institutions in the region.
The Fox, Quirk and South Middle Schools and Dominic Burns Elementary School and were chosen for the pilot sites by the school food service director based on the quality of the cafeteria facilities and the staffs’ level of experience. Each schools’ chef-manager has at least ten years of experience managing cafeterias. A total of 3,700 students are served in the four schools.
Staff at the cafeterias consisted of a cook manager, one to three part-time assistants, 4 to 5 servers, 2 cashiers, 2 janitors and 2 security officers. The cook-manager and the assistant usually work 7 hours a day; part-time workers put in 4 hours a day, and servers 2 to 3 hours a day. All workers must work quickly to produce a large quantity of food in a short period of time.
The cafeteria kitchens are large, clean and equipped with standard kitchen equipment in good operating condition. In general, the kitchens are not equipped for processing raw produce. Food processing equipment is limited to meat slicing machines and large-volume choppers and mixers. Generally, cooking consists of baking pre-processed foods in convection ovens. One school is equipped with a steamer, which facilitates cooking vegetables.
The school cafeterias are all large open rooms with room that seat 200 - 300 students at tables of 12 - 14. During lunch service, students are scheduled in staggered half hour “waves” of several hundred students. Students have a 20 to 25 minute lunch “hour” which includes the time it takes to stand in line for their food, leaving little time to socialize or actually eat. Adult supervisors monitor the rooms to maintain order; the atmosphere during lunch service is frenetic and the sound level is deafening.
In the 1997 fall period, cafeteria managers reported that they used very little additional labor to process the fruits and vegetables. New items were distributed evenly across the week’s menus to minimize additional staff time. Skill levels were limited in regard to vegetable preparation and handling, as the cafeterias did not ordinarily process vegetables from scratch. However, the staff in the four schools were able to incorporate the additional preparation tasks into the daily routine. The cafeteria managers report that an average of 2 extra hours per week was spent in food preparation. At $8 an hour, the labor cost amounts to $64/week, or $704 dollars for the 11-week period.
During the fall semester of 1996 and the spring and fall semesters of 1997, the Hartford Food System expanded its program to increase the amount of locally grown produce in the school lunch program in Hartford, Connecticut. The food service director and cafeteria staff modified the lunch menu to include more locally grown produce for 11 weeks in three schools (one elementary and two middle schools) in the fall of 1996 and 11 weeks in four schools (one elementary and three middle schools) in the fall of 1997. A produce broker who deals with 300 local growers provided weekly updates about the availability and prices of seasonal items. Another produce broker working with the team provided pre-cut fresh corn, squash and potatoes.
In the 1996 fall period of September 6 to November 15, the three participating schools purchased approximately 17,495 pounds of Connecticut grown fruits and vegetables for a total of $6900. This represented 79% of the total weight of local and imported produce and 76% of the total cost of $9,071 (See Table 1). Based on the average daily meal counts for that 11-week period, an average of 1823 students ate school lunch. The gross quantity of local produce provided per student was an estimated 9.6 pounds, or 2.8 ounces per day. The cost per student was $3.78 for the period.
Due to the late and cold spring of 1997, no produce was available for sale to the schools in May and June. From September 1 to November 7, 1997, a total of 15,300 pounds of Connecticut grown produce was used in the four schools. By weight, this represented approximately 53% of the total fresh produce purchased in the 11-week period. In terms of cost, the value of the produce was $6570, or 48% of the total $13,624 spent on all fresh produce (See Table 1). In this second 11-week period, the average daily meal counts show that approximately 2,692 students ate school lunch. The gross quantity of local produce provided per student was an estimated 5.7 pounds, or 1.7 ounces per day. The cost per student was $2.44 for the period.
Fresh fruits (apples peaches and pears) composed the bulk of the locally grown produce used in the intervention schools. In 1996, fruits composed about two-thirds of the volume and half the cost, and approximately one third in volume and cost in 1997 (See Table 1). In 1997, an additional 43,940 pounds (1200 cases) of peaches, apples and pears were distributed to the other 28 schools in the district. The cost of the additional fruit was $14,095.
In the 1996 and 1997 fall periods, the average per student expenditure on local produce was $3.11. Extrapolated to include the estimated 17,000 students participating in the city’s school lunch program in 1997, the potential value of local produce purchased in the 11-week fall period would be approximately $52,000. If all 24,000 eligible students were taken into account, the amount would be approximately $75,000. If the state’s estimated 447,000 students consumed $3.11 worth of Connecticut grown produce in their lunches for the same period, the sales value would amount to approximately $1.4 million.
The 1995 pilot program, Farm Fresh Start, established that Hartford’s 32 schools potential demand for local produce during the 40-week school year would amount to an estimated $173,000 in annual sales for local growers. At the state level, potential expenditures would amount to $3.3 million, or 9% of Connecticut’s total 1994 level fruit and vegetable farm sales of $38.15 million.
The fifteen varieties of local produce used in the two fall periods included the following items: IPM and conventionally-grown apples and pears, peaches, broccoli, corn, red and green cabbage, cauliflower, cucumbers, romaine and leaf lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, onions and peppers. Several attempts were made to locate growers who could supply lettuce for pre-cut salad mix.
During the fall of 1996, the cafeteria staff’s efforts to prepare items such as winter squash and field lettuce proved to be unworkable in a high volume environment. The intervention schools substituted a hydroponic butter-bibb lettuce grown in a Hartford greenhouse for iceberg lettuce for several weeks. While the quality of the product was excellent, the food service found it unsuitable because it cost more per pound than iceberg, was less durable in storage and handling, and the students preferred the crispy iceberg over the softer lettuce. The preparation of whole raw Acorn squash required far more preparation time than the staff could afford, and the final product was not accepted by the students. For the fall of 1997, a wholesaler with a “fresh cut” operation was engaged to provide pre-cut salad, diced skin-on potatoes and diced butternut squash to the four participating schools. The staff was able to prepare these items easily and with no additional labor, using improved and tested recipes.
The school food service introduced five new recipes to incorporate produce, including a tomato, cucumber and cabbage salad, tuna and vegetable salad, broccoli pizza, roasted potatoes, and roasted diced squash. In addition, a Puerto Rican beans, ham and squash stew was developed to use the diced butternut squash, but has not yet been added to the menu. The cafeteria staff embellished their fresh salads with locally grown cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes.
Beyond cost considerations, several factors influence the school food service’s purchase of local produce, including bid requirements, the availability of commodity produce, the institutional purchasing system, delivery requirements and vendor relationships. Ultimately, the students’ acceptance of the food is the most important consideration. As required by the Healthy School Meals Initiative, the Hartford School Food Service is working to incorporate more fresh fruits, vegetables and grains in the School Lunch Program by September, 1998.
Cost comparisons were made in the fall of 1997 between local and imported apples, pears, tomatoes and Romaine lettuce. Local apples ranged from 30% less to 20% more in cost than imported equivalents, and on average cost 8% less. Pears cost 15% less to 6% more, averaging 7% less in cost. Local tomatoes were 31% to 49% higher in cost, and on average cost 39% more. (Reasonable consumers would undoubtably choose the high quality, local, edible vine ripened tomato over one bred for durabilty and “color” on the plate.) Romaine lettuce was purchased for four weeks in September. During this time it cost an average of 34% less than imported California Romaine. It must be said, however, that the food service would use local lettuce more if growers delivered it washed and trimmed.
Planning for the school lunch menu is oriented towards offering as much variety as possible as the availability of commodities and budget allows, but it does not explicitly coordinate the menu with the availability of local produce. The Hartford Public School Food Service is required by city regulations to put out weekly bid requests to three wholesalers. Generally, the produce vendor with the lowest price wins the bid. Although seasonal Connecticut-grown produce items may cost less than equivalent imported items, when they are included in a bid for a mix of other cheaper imported produce the cost advantage can be eliminated. Presently, the School Food Service does not have a policy to purchase Connecticut produce. Such a policy would be developed only for “a well-documented and justifiable reason.”
In the 1996-1997 study period, local farmers provided the wholesalers with competitively priced produce that met specifications without making production changes or special accommodations. With planning and simple production changes, the food service can incorporate more seasonal items on the menu. A more significant link between local producers and the schools can be instituted with enough commitment and incentive. The food service has stated that in order for the “locally grown” program to be viable, all the vendors that bid on the produce would have to handle local growers; presently, many of the wholesalers deal only with the largest producers.
Creating Demand with a Farm and Food Curriculum
It is a monumental challenge to get American school children to consume the five servings of produce they need every day for cognitive and physical health. While most children know that vegetables are good for them and that junk foods are not, food pyramid lessons and nutrition charts do not motivate them to change their eating habits. Children will eat fruits and vegetables when they can learn about them in hands-on, interdisciplinary food education that is linked to changes in the school cafeteria, as demonstrated by the Hartford Food System’s 1995 pilot program, Farm Fresh Start and similar programs developed through the Food and Nutrition Service’s Cooperative Agreement program and independent projects in Trumansburg, New York, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and New York City.
In the 1996 and 1997 school year, the Hartford Food System worked with nine teachers from the four intervention schools plus two additional Hartford public schools to develop and implement a food education curriculum that focused on farms, local seasonal produce, and nutrition. The curriculum incorporated interdisciplinary topics including mathematics, science, and social studies. One hundred and forty six classes were held and 16 field trips taken to area farms and farmers’ markets. Guest lecturers included two farmers, four chefs, and two nutritionists. Approximately 650 students in grades 2 - 9 participated in at least one hands-on cooking and tasting activity, and 300 went on at least one field trip. An estimated 20% of the students in the intervention schools were exposed to at least one activity.
More than two thirds of the participating students were in Food and Consumer Science classes. These students received the most intensive exposure to the curriculum -- from three to six classes -- and had the opportunity to taste a wide range of locally grown fruits and vegetables. The food education classes, half of which were conducted by four volunteer chefs, featured tasting and cooking activities. In each class, the students focused on the featured items through a sensing exercise followed by a cooking activity. Students prepared dishes such as salads, stir fried asparagus or broccoli, apple pizza, roasted squash, squash soup, collard greens and fresh tomato salsa. These direct hands-on tasting and cooking activities encouraged the students to discover the taste of very fresh produce. For many, it was a new experience to take part in making a dish with raw, fresh ingredients.
The participating teachers and chefs contributed to the Farm to School Food Education Curriculum Guide, a compilation of twenty food education lesson plans and interdisciplinary activities that were developed in 1996 and 1997. A revision of the curriculum guide is presently in progress. Teachers value food education activities and lessons for their variety and versatility in regard to achieving their educational objectives. For many teachers, food is a motivator for learning. It also offers a concrete and relevant means for teaching students the relationships among interdisciplinary topics such as math, environmental science, culture, geography and art.
In the cafeterias, the staff worked to promote the new fresh fruits and vegetables with simple merchandising techniques such as creative garnishing and displaying baskets of fresh produce. Most importantly, they actively encourage students to try the fresh offerings. Keith Sims, the cafeteria manager in Fox Middle School, observed that “...the students have to see the new menu items more than once or twice before they get used to it. Since I tried the broccoli pizza in 1996, I’ve been putting on about 100 portions with the other kinds of pizza every time we have pizza on the menu. It disappears every time.”
The school’s capacity to utilize fresh local produce hinges on several issues: primarily, the schools need to be guaranteed of a reliable, consistent supply of produce for a reasonable price. Second, the types and amounts of raw produce that are used must be adapted to the schools’ labor and equipment constraints. Finally, the students must want to eat the fresh items -- that requires making the food attractive on the cafeteria line and making it familiar and desirable to the student through education.
The Hartford Food System and the Hartford Public School Food Service directors planned menu changes and developed recipes to incorporate local produce for 1996 based on the results of the 1995 pilot program that was carried out in two schools. The effort was refined further for the 1997 period to eliminate time-consuming or unpopular items.
The following actions were taken to implement program improvements:
• The Hartford Food System provided technical assistance to the food service to coordinate menus with crop availability.
• The local wholesaler, Fowler and Huntting, functioned as a clearing house for 300 growers and provided the school purchasing staff with harvest forecasts and information about the quality and price of local items.
• A fresh cut supplier was engaged in the fall of 1997 to prepare salad mix, diced potatoes and diced squash.
• The School Food Service collaborated with the Hartford Food System and Manchester Community College to develop recipes utilizing unprocessed and fresh-cut items.
• Cafeteria cooks further refined new recipes for ease of preparation and more attractive presentation.
At this writing, the Hartford Food System has received over fifty inquiries from individuals interested in developing programs linking local producers with the school lunch program. Project replication has included distribution of the “Farm Fresh Start Guide,” the “Farm to School Food Education Curriculum Guide” to over 50 individuals and groups, networking with regional and national groups to develop and disseminate information on school food education, local food sourcing by local schools.
The Hartford Food System has continued to to identify and reduce local, state and federal governments’ policy barriers that deter the purchase of local produce by public institutions. At the state level, the Hartford Food System has worked with the Connecticut Legislature, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, the Department of Adminsitrative Services and the newly formed Connecticut Food Policy Council to advocate for the development of linkages between local producers and local and state institutions.
In the 1996-1997 study period, local farmers provided the wholesalers with competitively priced produce that met specifications without making production changes or special accommodations.
This project has shown that with planning and simple production changes, the food service can incorporate more seasonal items on the menu. A more significant link between local producers and the schools can be instituted with enough commitment and incentive. The food service has stated that in order for the “locally grown” program to be viable, all the vendors that bid on the produce would have to handle local growers; presently, many of the wholesalers deal only with the largest producers.
The results from the Farm to School Food Education Project and the development of farmer and food service linkages has been presented in workshops and conferences for farmers, food service professionals, chefs, and educators. Organizations and groups that have received information about the program include the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, the Connecticut Dietetics Association, Food Service Directors Association, Connecticut Farm Fresh (a farmers’ market association); NOFA (Northeast Farmers Association), Nutrition Education and Training members, the American Institute of Wine and Food, the Chef’s Collaborative 2,000 and the National Community Food Security Coalition.
The program has been featured in a variety of media, including The Hartford Public School’s newsletter , Children First (Appendix B ), the school food service newsletter, The Hartford Courant (Appendix C ), a November 1996 National Public Radio “Living on the Earth” news story (Appendix D), the Hartford Food System’s “Seedling” newsletter, and the annual report of the Connecticut Legislature’s Food Security Committee.
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
The contributions and applications from Project Farm Fresh Start fall into three categories: The cafeteria or the food preparation, handling and serving workplace, the classroom or food education center, and the farm or the focal point for production and marketing.
Public school cafeterias are mini factories that essentially prescribe one form (one size fits all) of operation, require conformity and discourage innovation. What this project has shown is that when a number of positive factors exist and are interjected into that environment, change can occur and new ways of doing business can surface and even become part of the daily routine. With the commitment and cooperation of the head of Hartford’s school food service as well as from key food service management, the schools could obtain reasonably priced, high quality locally-grown produce through conventional channels. By working closely with the food service administration and staff, the Hartford Food System provided simple technical assistance to help cafeteria workers learn to handle highly perishable local produce. This close, almost personal relationship reduced the resistance from workers that is typical in an institutional setting.
The contributions from this project are significant. If cafeterias in other schools and other school districts and other states can see and appreciate the success that occurred in Hartford’s four pilot schools, then it is likely that they will be more receptive and adaptable. The attitude that “if they did it in Hartford they can do it anywhere” could easily prevail throughout the food service network, laying the groundwork for the dissemination of this innovation. The precise size of the contribution has already been discussed in earlier sections, but it is essentially the calculation of the potential dollar demand generated by the schools and the concomitant response of farmers to supply that demand.
In the classroom, the contribution is less quantifiable but probably more significant. As was identified in the beginning of this report, low income children tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables than higher income children. Furthermore, these same children live in a poverty environment where hunger, poor nutrition, food shortages, and a host of environmental risks are prevalent. The size of the risk facing low income children speaks to the potential size of the contribution of increasing their consumption of fresh produce. The project has shown that children exposed to hands-on experiential food education are more receptive to trying new fresh vegetables and fruits in the classroom. They are more likely to try these foods in the cafeteria if they become a familiar -- and appetizing -- sight on the lunch line. To the extent that their increased consumption can also be linked to a better understanding of farms and how food is grown, the more likely they will be to value local farms and consume more of their products.
Similarly, teachers who understand and can effectively utilize the learning opportunities that exist for them already in the cafeteria, the community and the region will be able to integrate lessons about food, nutrition and environment. Teachers can be enormously important change agents for children, which suggests the potential for this project and ones like it to change people’s understanding and attitudes about our local food supply. Hartford has 24,000 children who eat lunch every day. If they each are one more serving of fresh produce than they do now and if they each understand a little bit more about the source of their food and how it is grown, it is likely that regional agriculture would be considerable stronger than it is today.
On the farm the story is the same. When farmers recognize the potential of institutional buyers, especially local schools which are not far from their farms, they can begin to orient their production accordingly. They can support their own marketing by speaking to classes of kids or by hosting school farm tours. They can, in effect, sell themselves to their customers while investing in their own futures at the same time.
This project has demonstrated that local schools are viable markets for local farmers. While it is impossible to determine the number of farmers who would be affected by the development of this market, it is reasonable to assume that over $3 million in additional sales per year could be divided among a substantial number of farmers. More importantly, every farm is close to the school system, which represents a new and significant market.
As stated in the “findings and accomplishments” section, the potential sales of locally grown produce to the school lunch program were determined with a straightforward analysis of records of the pilot schools’ 1996 and 1997 purchasing records for the 11-week fall period. According to these figures, Connecticut farms could produce $1.4 million worth of fresh fruits and vegetables for the state’s school lunch program, approximately 3.5% of the state’s total 1995 fruit and vegetable farm sales of $39.54 million.
It is important to note that these projections are based only on the actual experience of a study that made modest changes in the school menu for the 11-week fall period of the school year. Over time, additional adaptations could be made to the menu that might accommodate more volume and variety of Connecticut grown produce. The 1995 pilot program, Farm Fresh Start, established that Hartford’s 32 schools potential demand for local produce during the 40-week school year would amount to an estimated $173,000 in annual sales for local growers. At the state level, potential expenditures would amount to $3.3 million, or 9% of Connecticut’s total 1994 level fruit and vegetable farm sales of $38.15 million.
The public school system and the National School Lunch Program is just one potential market for local growers. Other institutions that operate food assistance programs, such as the summer meals program and the school breakfast program, also could purchase locally grown produce and further increase demand for local produce.
A. Changes in Practice
While on-farm cultivation practices were not affected by the program, farmers discovered a new opportunity to market their farms through the educational farm activities they could offer, including “pick-your-own” tours and in-school lectures. The tours generated extra farm income and created an opportunity to develop new customers both for more school tours and produce.
B. Operational Recommendations
The opportunities the school system represents suggests that farmers should actively enlist farm organizations such as the Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture to help remove marketing barriers and to orient institutional purchasing policy towards local producers. In addition, farmers should investigate marketing themselves to schools for educational field trips.
This project clearly identified the need for an intermediate marketing structure to facilitate institutional purchasing of locally-grown produce, especially the Hartford schools. Direct delivery by farmers to individual schools has a limited application because the order may not be big enough for a farmer or the farmer may not have exactly what is required by the school. Intermediate marketing structures could include a marketing cooperative, an independent broker for a group of growers, or even contract growing that would create advance commitment by the schools to one or more growers. Successful marketing coops in Massachusetts and other states have demonstrated their effectiveness to farmers.
The issue of barriers to institutional purchasing from farmers was recently identified by the Connecticut Ad Hoc Committee on Food Security, a group of 15 food system stakeholders assembled by the Connecticut Legislature’s Planning and Development Committee. The group included representatives from the Connecticut Farm Bureau, the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension Service, and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. All representatives recommended the development of a marketing cooperative in order to facilitate access by small and medium size growers to institutions.
C. Farmer Evaluations:
While farmers did not directly supply schools for the 1996 and 1997 periods, there are many producers who are well aware that public schools offer a potential new market and realize they could be competitive in price for most of their products.
In the 1995 pilot program Project Farm Fresh Start, four farmers participated directly in as suppliers. While all were willing to go the extra distance to try out the alternative school market, it was clearly unprofitable to make deliveries to individual schools. All the farmers expressed the need for an organized outlet for local produce, such as a coop, and stated that the biggest problem they faced was a volatile market that undercut prices. Presently, farmers rely on wholesale brokers who as de facto coops, which does not afford them the benefits and organizing power of a farmer-operated coop. In 1997, an estimated 20 growers provided produce to the four schools.
Wayne Young, from High Hill Orchard in Meriden, Connecticut stated “In order for this to work for me, the school food service needs to make a commitment to buy Connecticut-grown produce in the spring and fall when the farms can offer a good supply... If growers knew they had a market for a particular time of the year, they could plan to supply it, and probably offer better prices.”
Areas needing additional study
Problem solving research needs to be conducted to improve the utilization of locally grown foods in the schools in regard to policy development, food service training, and in food education. The following areas should be investigated:
• Policy development for state institutional purchasing
• USDA policies that could support the marketing of local produce to local school systems
• Development of farmer coops to supply the school market
• The development of pre-processing capability for beans, squash, lettuce, spinach and other vegetables for school food services
• Development of long-term inter-disciplinary food education programs
• Development of community and food professional involvement in food and nutrition education
Policy Influences and Implications
The operation of the Farm to School Food Education program has been influenced by existing local, state and federal policies as they are related to agriculture, purchasing, education, and nutrition. The ultimate success of the larger project goal -- to increase the purchase of locally-grown foods by public school institutions -- will be determined by the direction of policy at all levels of government as much as it will be by the actions of local school food service administrators and other school officials.
The following policy-related influences were identified from the direct experience of operating the Farm to School Food Education program over the past 24 months. The Hartford Food System has also investigated state and national (USDA) policies that have a direct and indirect effect on institutional purchasing of locally-grown (primarily Connecticut) fresh produce. These activities included national work in developing a community food security policy for USDA as well as involvement in the National Association of Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs and its participation in Team USDA. At the state level, the Hartford Food System’s understanding of state government policies related to purchasing Connecticut-grown products has been enhanced by its participation in the development of a state legislature sponsored Connecticut Food Security Committee and a newly-formed state government food policy council. A summary of the Hartford Food System’s policy conclusions follow.
The success of any initiative to increase the purchasing of locally grown food by a school system is heavily influenced by the interests of the school’s food service director as well as the policies and procedures of the school system itself. A system driven by minimizing costs will be less interested in innovations that address other goals such as enhancing nutrition or supporting local farmers. Many schools are turning their food services over to private contractors, including fast food operators. The implications of “privatization” for farmers are to exclude them further from participation in supplying the market since the vendor bypasses local suppliers in its purchasing decisions. In addition, the public will have less access and control over a privately operated food service. While the vendor contract could include provisions to buy from a local grower, such negotiations can be difficult and hard to monitor.
There are at least two major areas where the policy of state government can influence institutional purchasing of locally grown produce. The Department of Education can develop, disseminate and encourage the use of school curricula that creates meaningful links between local agriculture, environmental science, nutrition, and the school cafeteria. While Connecticut schools have elements of such a curriculum, and the Farm Bureau is promoting its “Food, Land and People” curriculum in the state, there is no program fully integrating the many facets of food education (environment, nutrition, gardening/agriculture, cooking) or the disparate educational activities such as nutrition education and Family and Consumer Science (formerly home economics).
The second area of state government influence is the preparation of state contracts for the purchase of food for state-operated institutions such as prisons, universities, and public institutions for the disabled. In Connecticut, the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) is responsible for these contracts. Provisions that encourage the use of locally-grown food by state institutions exist, but they are not mandated nor are they monitored or enforced. These provisions are further undermined by a movement to “one stop shopping” for the awarding of contracts to vendors who supply institutions with everything from apples to zippers. Typically, such vendors are very large and can use their buying power to purchase directly from out of state sources such as New York or Boston terminal markets, or even direct from produce shippers in California. Ordinarily, they would not buy from a local grower unless they are very large.
The recent involvement of DAS with the U.S. Department of Defense produce purchasing program (see Federal section below) resulted in minimal participation by local growers. Arrow Paper, the prime vendor handling the distribution for the DOD, stated in its 1996 Annual Report: State of Connecticut Direct Delivery of Food, Custodial and Toiletry Items and Partnership Program: Connecticut Grown Produce that $150,000 was spent on Connecticut grown produce in 1996. However, by their own account, only $75,700 was actually spent, approximately $35,600 of which was used to buy locally-grown apples and pears for all of Connecticut’s institutions. By comparison, in 11 weeks the Hartford Public School Food Service purchased $18,300, or half this amount, for local fruit for its 32 schools.
Through USDA’s administration of the National School Lunch Program, the Federal Government potentially exercises more influence over what schools serve and where it is purchased than any other level of government. USDA’s School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children and Team Nutrition place the Federal government squarely in the forefront of good nutrition for school children. However, it is at the Federal level where the Hartford Food System has found the most contradictions between stated policy objectives and practices. While USDA is supporting innovative and aggressive efforts to improve school childrens’ diets with an emphasis on reducing fat and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, it is not placing similar emphasis on including locally grown food or sustainably produced food in the menu. USDA’s statement from its School Meal Initiative is: “ USDA will develop pilot projects to assist schools in purchasing from local farmers.” In the case of the above mentioned D.O.D. project, which was supported by USDA, commodities were purchased by USDA from low bidders and given to local school systems (for example, schools paid $3 for a case of apples to cover shipping and handling.). To this end, Connecticut had a credit of $6 million, of which $500,000 was fresh produce. The Connecticut Department of Administrative Service (DAS) managed the contract for Connecticut schools but DOD did the buying. In 1995, DOD purchased apples from outside the Northeast Region at the peak of Connecticut’s apple harvest. Based on the estimate of one local wholesaler, this displaced 20,000 cases of Connecticut apples that would have been purchased by local institutions. Similarly, in October 1995, when USDA held a kick-off event at the Windsor, Connecticut Public Schools (one of six pilot schools nationally selected by USDA for the School Meal Initiative), one of the featured exhibits was from Washington State Apple Growers Association. Neither the USDA officials in attendance expressed any interest in buying apples or any other locally-grown product from Connecticut of New England growers.
Connecticut imports 90% of its food, exporting dollars for agricultural products that could be grown in-state. Increasing dependence on cheap, imported produce has eliminated many local marketing outlets for farmers. Since World War II, the number of farmers has decreased from 22,000 to 3,500, while hunger rises among urban dwellers. Agricultural sustainability in this rapidly urbanizing state calls for the restoration of the local food system and development of local marketing opportunities that will keep farmers in business. The school lunch program is potentially a substantial and stable market for Connecticut farmers. Linking farmers with local schools is beneficial for both parties and supports USDA health and agricultural policy objectives to double the amount of produce purchased by the NSLP and the USDA commitment to increase the amount of organically or sustainably grown produce used in school meals by 25%. Buying local produce would give school children better access to fresher, tastier, and safer fruits and vegetables while simultaneously providing farmers with new market opportunities. With reduced marketing and transport costs, local farmers can offer competitive prices.
The development of stable, diversified local agricultural production will help strengthen farming and farming communities, while assured markets for sustainable growers will help support environmentally responsible farming. As shown by the Farm to School Food Education project, Connecticut growers can supply schools with fresh fruits and vegetables that meet bid specifications for cost and quality.
To re-establish the link between local growers and local markets, there must be coordinated, consistent and long-term commitment on the part of state and federal agencies, including USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (CRSEES), and the Food and Consumer Service (FCS) that oversees the School Lunch Program.
Progress on this goal will be determined by how many schools take some action that would lead to the implementation of a similar effort. Removal of policy barriers would be evident by such actions as the USDA explicitly linking and supporting efforts to use locally-grown produce in the National School Lunch Program and, further, setting specific, measurable targets for how much of that produce will be grown with sustainable practices. At the state level, removal or reduction of purchasing guidelines that restrict the purchase of Connecticut-grown by state institutions would be evidence of progress.
At the local level, boards of education could take three actions: (1) integrate all their food-related curricula into one comprehensice approach to food, environmental science, nutrition, health, cooking and agricultural education; (2) re-examine their food purchasing practices and procedures to determine how these practices may be integrated with other social, economic and environmental goals; (3) use the cafeteria as an extension of the classroom, where students learn lessons about food, nutrition and social interaction.