Farm to School Food Education Project
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. The project worked with area farmers, produce brokers and a produce fresh-cut processor to address supply and distribution issues.
Key accomplishments include:
Participating teachers and chefs helped develop the Farm to School Food Education Curriculum Guide.
Discovering that the types and amounts of raw produce that are used must be adapted to the schools’ labor and equipment constraints.
Demonstrating that local schools are viable markets for local farmers, however there is a clear need for an intermediate marketing structure to facilitate institutional purchasing of locally-grown produce.
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 percent 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.
Methods and Findings
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 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 percent.
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. Minor production changes allowed school cafeteria staff to use local produce in the menu. On average, produce cost 12 percent to 33 percent percent more than conventionally grown imported items. Fruits cost an average of 7 percent less than imported equivalents.
The fifteen varieties of local produce used in the two fall periods included: 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.
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 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. In that period, cafeteria managers reported 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.
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 students through education.
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. Cost comparisons showed local apples on average cost 8 percent less, pears cost 7 percent less, Romaine lettuce was 34 percent less, and local tomatoes cost 39 percent more. With planning and simple production changes, the food service can incorporate more seasonal items on the menu. 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.
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.
The Hartford Food System worked with teachers 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, art, 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.
The food education classes, half of which were conducted by four volunteer chefs, featured tasting and cooking activities. These direct hands-on tasting and cooking activities encouraged the students to discover the taste of very fresh produce, while in the cafeterias the staff actively encouraged students to try the fresh offerings.
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.
For example, in the 1996 and 1997 fall periods, the average per student expenditure on local produce was $3.11. 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. Demand for local produce during the 40-week school year would amount to an estimated $3.3 million, or nine percent of Connecticut’s total 1994 level fruit and vegetable farm sales of $38.15 million.
However, 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
In the 1995 pilot program, 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, which does not afford them the benefits and organizing power of a farmer-operated coop.
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.
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 comprehensive 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.
Reported November 1997.