The Norwich Public School District in Connecticut has been processing fresh produce supplied by area farms for four years at its Thomas Mahan School kitchen, initially just for its own use but more recently also for two nearby districts. But the operation had been limited by regulations that prevented it from acting as a direct supplier to those other districts.
That, however, is now no longer the case as Norwich has earned a manufacturing license from the state for the processing operation.
“Now I’m able to sell [the processed product] to other school districts, whereas before they would purchase the farm produce and give it to me to process, and then I would send it back to them,” explains Erin Perpetua, director of foodservices for Norwich.” So now I can purchase it, process it and then sell it—it’s just an easier line to follow.”
The new status is also financially beneficial as it allows Norwich to account for all its costs.
“Before, I never charged other districts for the labor even though I had five people doing all this processing,” Perpetua says. “Now I’m able to work those figures into the cost” of the processed product.
Getting certification required an inspection by the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection.
“It is not required but I submitted our HAACP plan as well as the process of how each product is processed,” Perpetua explains. “[The inspector] had to watch the process from start to finish on one product to see how we do things exactly. This included even inspecting our van.”
The van is used to make some deliveries while in other cases the purchasing district sends its own vehicle to make the pickup.
The volumes the processing kitchen handles are considerable: recently, for example, it husked, cleaned, froze and packaged 10,000 ears of corn and processed nearly 800 pounds of summer squash.
The kitchen currently buys from three area farms, each of which received notification before this year’s growing season of the kinds of crops Norwich and its two current customer districts—New London and Groton—were looking for.
At present, the processing is done mostly by hand by five high school students hired from the culinary program at a local tech school and two adult full-time staffers.
Perpetua is in the process of purchasing a chopper unit to automate some of the work.
The kitchen already has a steamer, vacuum sealer and some temperature-controlled storage and will soon be adding an external fridge/freezer that would be dedicated only to the processing operation, which is straining the district’s storage capacity.
“I have 11 schools and whatever excess storage they have, that’s where [processed product] is going,” Perpetua says. “I have an external freezer at one site and it’s been full for months. We have a scheduled pickup this week of 40 cases, but that’s just a dent in what we have [in storage] right now.”
Nor will there be much relief until early next year despite Connecticut’s New England climate, because the supply of hardy locally grown root vegetables keeps the kitchen busy into January.
This is the processing operation’s fourth year.
“We started out small, picking up things here and there [and it] just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Perpetua says. And now with the processing certification, it can be expected to grow even more, she adds, noting she has already received inquiries from several districts, including a private school.