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Planting the seeds for farm to school

Erie (Pa.) School District and Metz Culinary Management embark on a journey to fight food insecurity, educate students and work with farms, armed with a $23,000 USDA grant and can-do attitude.

A planning grant provides a window of time to sow the seeds of a robust farm-to-school program. The foodservice team, a teacher and other stakeholders are spending this school year preparing for a much more farmer-friendly future for Erie (Pa.) School District. Here are the main factors and challenges they’re cultivating into a program with major potential to enrich and educate.

Outdoor classrooms spark the idea

Currently, there are learning gardens at each of the 15 schools in the district, which serves about 12,000 kids, most from urban areas, many in the middle of food deserts, limiting their access to fresh veggies. While some of the harvest is used in cooking demos, the gardens don’t provide food for the cafeterias. “They are mainly there for students to learn about gardening,” says Jenny Johns, GM for Metz Culinary Management.

Erie-farm-to-school1.pngBut every once in a while, a student will experience the magic of eating a vegetable straight off the vine, and that spark has led to a desire for a deeper connection with area farmers who can feed the whole district, with the help of distributors, regulations and a solid plan, of course.

“At an after-school program, some kids were leaving, and they asked me, ‘Can we pick some sorrel for a treat?’” recalls Doreen Petri, a high school science teacher in the district, who was instrumental in planting the gardens, starting about five years ago. “They might not try different vegetables in the cafeteria so readily, but we’ve found they’ll eat anything from the garden. That’s how we’re changing how kids think about fresh food. I say, ‘Just try it,’ and pick something right off the branch.”

Experiencing fresh food is such a big deal to the district, because, Petri says, “A lot of times they don’t get fresh foods at home because we don’t have food access in certain neighborhoods, and a big focus will be teaching them to grow their own urban gardens at home with their families.”

Getting more local produce into the cafeterias was the motivation for Petri, also an experienced grant writer, to secure a pilot (aka planning) grant from the USDA in order to get started with farm to school. This planning grant is being used to research and develop an action plan, which the USDA will review and possibly award an implementation grant between $50,000 and $100,000 for the program.

Teamwork from day one

“We’ve been able to assemble a wonderful team [to work on the planning grant],” Petri says. “We were warned at first that if we have an outside foodservice provider in our district, that could be a challenge.”

Erie-farm-to-school3.pngThat challenge turned out to be nothing to worry about, as, “Metz has the same vision we do,” Petri says, “which is teaching nutrition and gardening to inner-city children within our city limits where food deserts are increasing.”

Erie Schools is a CEP district, with breakfast in the classroom and after-school feeding programs, so food insecurity—along with not enough access to fresh produce—is always an issue at the forefront, Johns says.

Assessing where you are and setting goals

Taking the first step can be a little daunting, and unfortunately it can be discouraging to many foodservice professionals who already have a lot on their plate. That’s why assembling a leadership team and three major subcommittees have kept the project on track.

“Once we decided on those teams, the subcommittees met separately and then we came together in January to assess what are our needs, what’s our input, what’s our outcome and the steps we’re trying to achieve, complete with a mission statement, vision and action plan,” Petri says. “At first you don’t really know where you’re going. So you start with what you have; you have to prioritize and distill ideas down to what you can truly accomplish.”

With that, the team came up with ideas to try right away (a roasted local potato day in every school, farmers visiting with micro greens to sample and a beet tasting day with roasted “beet fries”), and three bigger projects to try next school year:

  • Fruit and vegetable signage for elementary school cafes. “As part of further developing education in the cafes, we’re updating the signage to teach students what part of the plant the item comes from, for example that carrots are the root of the plant,” Johns says.
  • Chef visits. Also beginning with elementary schools, Metz chefs will visit school cafes to cook a local item for students to sample, showcasing local foods and local farmers.
  • Harvest of the month. Each school will get to experience a new food each month, with marketing to make it fun.

The rules and regulations/fine print

“The No. 1 issue is absolutely food safety,” Johns says. That means Metz Culinary Management must ensure that growers they work with have the proper certifications. Working with produce vendors/distributors can make that step easier, but still, such things as liability insurance on the part of the farmers must be addressed.

“We have to make sure the farmers have a third-party audit and complete traceability of the product,” Johns says. “For a district our size, we need to take baby steps. We can’t implement everything in one year, so we’re setting goals for each year over five to 10 years.”

As the school year draws to a close, the district will no wait to see if the seeds they’ve planted will lead to a grant. We will stay tuned!

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