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Food Hub, Food Truck and Food Education: Northern Colorado School District Takes Farm to School to Next Level

NFSN Staff Wednesday, November 16, 2016

By Andrea Northup, USDA Farm to School Regional Lead for the Mountain Plains Region, and Helen Dombalis, Programs Director and Interim Policy Director for the National Farm to School Network

A bin of acorn squash sits on a pallet at the Weld County School District 6 central kitchen, right next to a bin of yellow onions and a 1,000 pound tote of russet potatoes – all locally-grown.  A walk through the facility is enough to convince anyone that Weld County School District 6 is committed to scratch-cooked, locally-grown food for its 22,000 students at 35 schools.  In this rural Colorado school district, where over 40 languages are spoken at home and 66 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, fresh, tasty food is the norm – even down to the green chili, a southwestern favorite roasted in-house using three varieties of local peppers.

About a quarter of the central kitchen is dedicated to processing fresh fruits and vegetables.  Mushrooms are sliced, carrots are shredded, and onions are diced.  With funding from a USDA Farm to School Grant in 2013, this Food Hub portion of the kitchen was furnished with tables, wash stations and equipment to process local food for Weld County’s own meals and for other districts in the area.

Natalie Leffler is the Food Hub Manager at Weld County School District 6.  Her job is to coordinate partnerships with farmers, ranchers and local businesses to source as much local food as possible, defined as grown or produced within a 400 mile radius. Natalie manages an annual bid to establish relationships and contracts.  Growers must submit a food safety checklist with their bid documents, which Natalie confirms with an in-person site visit, so the district can rest assured that the local products are safe.  

Matt Poling, the school district’s Executive Chef, assures that menu planning, recipe development, and production processes maximize the use of local products.  The freezer is full of shredded local zucchini (for blending into tomato sauce), mirepoix (the age-old combination of onion, celery and carrots used as a base for soups), and other local ingredients to incorporate into meals in the off-season.  The team even prepares mashed potatoes made with local red potatoes and home-made gravy.  Locally-grown and dried pinto beans are sorted and cooked into refried beans or chili.  



Just outside the facility are four giant compost bins designed to turn food scraps from the kitchen into compost for the district’s school gardens, funded through an innovative partnership with the West Greeley Conservation District.  Sometimes El Fuego, the district’s flashy food truck, is parked outside, too.  But typically the truck is out roaming the district, serving up favorites like Baracoa street tacos and the yakisoba noodle bowl to students and school staff.

The district goes beyond local procurement – school gardens, student wellness, and food education are three major areas of focus. Plans are underway to transform a sandy, unused portion of a nearby schoolyard into an educational farm focused on student engagement and employment.  Called “Growing Grounds,” the project vision includes raised bed, an orchard, a teaching kitchen, hoop houses, and a greenhouse. Weld County School District 6 takes innovation and creativity to a new level with its farm to school program!


Inspired by Weld County School District’s 6 and their innovative farm to school programs? USDA is currently accepting applications for the Farm to School Grant Program, which assists eligible entities in implementing farm to school programs that improve access to local foods in eligible schools. Consider applying for a grant to bring more local food into school meals, promote healthy eating habits and expand markets for American farmers and producers. Applications are due December 8, 2016. 

Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner: Student-raised chickens on school lunch trays

NFSN Staff Friday, March 06, 2015

By Sarah Elliott, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and Wisconsin state lead for the National Farm to School Network

On January 30, students across the Holmen School District in northwestern Wisconsin had a special farm to school lunch, aptly named “Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner.”  Over the past year, students in Roger King’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) classes raised over 450 meat chickens to be served to more than 3,000 Holmen students during this special lunch. The fantastic partnership between the FFA program; the Holmen’s nutrition services director, Mike Gasper; and the Coulee Regional Farm to School Program, made this extraordinarily unique project a farm to school success!

Last month I interviewed Holmen Mike Gasper, to learn more about this project and other farm to school activities in the district.

What prompted you to undertake this chicken project?
About a year ago, 25 of our FFA students came to me to ask if we would be interested in serving chickens they raised. We said yes, and so began the adventure that culminated in our Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner event.

The school helped pay for the equipment that was needed—feeders, waterers and chicken feed, and in May, the students got their first chicks. When they reached maturity, the birds were processed at a USDA licensed facility and then picked up by our distributor partner, Reinhardt Foods, who froze the chickens and stored them until enough birds had been raised to feed the whole district. The last batch of chickens went to the processor in the beginning of November.

What were some of the lessons you learned during the course of this project?
Well, we learned a lot about raising chickens. And we worked hard to put a system in place to ensure proper protocols and insurance while transporting the chicken between locations. To accomplish this, we actually became a processing member of Fifth Season Cooperative – a multi-stakeholder organization that includes six member classes that span the entire supply chain at the local level. Producers, producer groups, processors, distributors, buyers and workers all contribute. We sold the chicken to Fifth Season, they sold it to Reinhardt and then we bought it back. Now that the system is in place, we anticipate that next year will be even less expensive.  

Was the event a success?
Most definitely! “[This is the] best school meal I’ve ever gotten!” was a comment echoing throughout the cafeterias. In addition to the chicken, we served hydroponic lettuce grown at our high school, locally-grown potatoes sourced from Fifth Season and local milk, plus a non-local fruit. The FFA students helped serve the meal, and everyone had a great time. The cafeteria atmosphere was very celebratory – I even saw some kids doing the “chicken dance!” Our staff did an outstanding job. We are definitely planning on doing it again next year—and have even been talking to the FFA about the possibility of four-legged animals!

What is the history of farm to school activities in Holmen?
We started farm to school in 2008, which was my first year with the district. We started with apples and still partner with the same orchard today. Our county program started the following year, with the introduction of a Harvest of the Month Program and cooking classes with Chef Thomas Sacksteder. This past year we also partnered with the FFA to grow three fields of sweet corn. The chickens were our first meat project, and the first time we served so many local products on one day!  

Farm to school in Arizona: A conversation with Linda Rider

NFSN Staff Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Our Arizona State Lead, Cindy Gentry, recently sent us this great Q&A between Libby Boudreau, a community dietitian at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, and Linda Rider, director of nutrition services for the Tempe Elementary School District in Arizona. Thanks to Libby for conducting the interview, to Cindy for sending it our way and to Linda for her great farm to school work! 

How long have you been doing farm to school?
I feel that I dabble in it. I first did farm to school about five years ago when we received a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, and the Arizona Department of Education gave us a big list of farmers.

What was the first item that you purchased locally?
Since 2009 we’ve purchased local apples every fall–I only want them when they’re being harvested. We expanded to include carrots from Rousseau Farms in 2011. I really want our local produce to come as much as possible from Maricopa County. Part of my initiative is to have a smaller carbon footprint and get food directly from the farms to the district. That means working with smaller farmers to support the local economy.

What other items have you been able to purchase from local farmers?
Last year I was able to bring in specialty lettuce from Duncan Family Farms through the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. It was a pilot project, and the farm was identified through Stern Produce [a local distributor]. It was only four days from harvest to door, and the lettuce was washed and chopped in between. We used it in entrée salads and side salads from November until mid-April.

What is your kitchen setup? Do you have a central processing kitchen or does each school receive and process its own deliveries?
We have a central facility and we send produce out to schools, but most of what we receive is already prepped. We don’t really have to chop and clean, but we could. As I start pulling in smaller farmers, they may not be able to get things processed. That system is still being implemented.

Did your costs increase when you implemented your farm to school program?
They stayed pretty balanced. The cost for carrots was break-even. Apples are a little more costly due to the distribution. I was getting them directly from a farmer at first, and at that time, the cost was equitable. That farmer can no longer deliver directly to the school, so they now come from a distributor called Patagonia Orchards. Because of that, the apples are a little more expensive, but they’re also organic.

What are the biggest challenges of your farm to school program?
Distribution and procurement. A distributor won’t pick up apples from a farm just for me; it doesn’t fit their model. It’s about finding out who can help with that distribution. You have to be creative to get it to come to you, unless it comes through the Department of Defense. Some of the larger distributors are highlighting local products now, and that can be a viable way to help access local farmers.

Another challenge is knowing who is out there, who the smaller farmers are. And then you have to think about food safety. Are they GHP/GAP certified, or have they had another type of third-party audit?

Finally, volume is a challenge. Our organic apples are not the only apples we serve because we don’t get enough to cover all of our needs. They’re mixed in with other apples.

What resources were useful to you as you developed your farm to school program?
There are some good procurement guides that have been very helpful. One, from USDA, is called Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs. Another one, by School Food FOCUS, is called Geographic Preference: A primer on purchasing fresh, local food for schools

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about farm to school programs?
That nobody wants local produce. I hear a lot of school nutrition directors talking about local, but when I call my distributor, they tell me I’m the only person asking for it. I don’t believe that. If you look at what your distributor offers and ask them about local products, there will be a shift. Schools have to tell their distributors that they are looking for local and what local means to them.

What benefits do you see from your farm to school program?
Bringing in local produce is a way to maintain nutrient density and freshness, and that’s why I like it really local – within the county. It’s just so fresh. It’s also exciting to market to the school community and help them be aware of our efforts. I know our families appreciate local, so I’m always finding ways to make them aware of what we do. It’s a customer service issue. And if we can get the teachers involved, then they get the kids excited. That’s the best way to get kids involved. Also, supporting the local economy is important. 

Tell us about your very favorite farm to school moment.
I love seeing all of the apple varieties. We’re getting Pink Lady apples in today, and they’re the perfect size for schools. We just had Fuji apples. They’re always juicy and fresh – just great apples. And they’re pretty! I think people think that if you buy organic or local, the produce is going to be ugly, but it’s not.

Profile: Desiree and Cal Wineland, American Butchers & Veterans Vineyard and Winery

NFSN Staff Thursday, May 01, 2014


Editor's note: This week we are profiling a few of the wonderful people we met at the 7th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Austin last month. More than 1,100 farm to cafeteria movers and shakers gathered for four days of inspiring field trips, workshops, keynotes and more. We are excited to share their stories. 

Heading west

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Desiree and Calvin Wineland’s two young boys, Calvin and Austin, were in the Pentagon daycare center. They had arrived a week earlier because Desiree had been selected for an Army Congressional Fellowship. Both Desiree and Cal were helicopter pilots in the Army, but they never expected they would bring their kids anywhere near a battlefield. They all made it home safe that night, and while discussing the day’s events and the consequences that would surely follow, the Winelands made a solemn promise to their children that they would keep them out of harms way, and the middle of Nebraska, near where Cal's great-grandparents homesteaded, seemed like the place to do it. It would take a few years before they were able to retire and make their move.

 

Generations before, Cal’s family had made a similar journey, pushing west across the Great Plains, settling on the shores of the Republican River near Cambridge, Nebr., about 300 miles shy of the Rocky Mountains. It was here that Calvin, Desiree and their two kids would make a new life.

Once they had decided to move to Nebraska, Desiree began studying local history, trying to figure out what to do. She learned that early settlers planted grapes. The idea that they would be following in the steps of the pioneers appealed to them, and so did the idea of giving their friends a reason to visit rural Nebraska. But first, they needed to figure out how to grow grapes and make wine.

Wine making and grape growing involves a surprising amount of chemistry. Desiree commuted to Denver every weekend for a year to get certified through the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) and became involved with the American Chemical Society. As they learned more, they expanded their vision for the vineyard to include using it as a field lab for students. With approval from the local school district, they started teaching kids how to grow grapes, taking them through the process from soil samples through BRIX testing. 

Another new venture

It takes grape vines 3-5 years to produce fruit after they are planted, so once the work of choosing the right grapes and establishing the vines was done, the Winelands needed another projects to keep them busy. While they now knew a lot about viticulture, all of their new friends were mostly interested in cattle, a topic Desiree knew nothing about. Their interest grew, however, and soon the Winelands enrolled in the University of Nebraska to become certified in all things beef.

 

As the Winelands learned more about agriculture and the dwindling incomes farmers face, they started to think of ways they could cut out the middle-men so that farmers could keep more of their own profits. Farm to school programs emerged as a great solution for produce, but because all meat processing is centralized, there were logistical hurdles to selling local beef to local schools. 

 

Having hit a dead end, the Winelands needed a sign. A few nights later, they got one. A local preacher, Bill Weaver, came to the door of their farmhouse. He said that if they wanted to create jobs and support agriculture, he had a great opportunity. He started describing a facility that needed new management. It was a "locker," he told them. The only problem was that if this "locker" wasn’t part of a locker room at a gym, then Desiree had no idea what it was.

 

The following Monday, the Winelands travelled to the neighboring town of Beaver City to get their first look at the locker. It was a meat locker, and it was in a state of disrepair. 

In the military, officers are constantly put into situations where they are totally unfamiliar with their surroundings. They are trained to learn quickly and rely on the expertise of people around them. Where many people would have walked away, the Winelands used their training to assess the situation, quickly realizing that the locker was the key to processing meat for local farmers and delivering it to local schools. They decided to set up shop, and American Butchers was established in April 2011.

 

A community focus

Instead of focusing on scale, they focused on the relationship they had with farmers. They established a set price for farmers to use the locker and encouraged farmers to sell their beef for whatever they could get, keeping the difference. That stood in stark contrast to the big corporate operations that buy cattle for rock bottom prices and churn out as much beef as they can, as quickly as possible. 

In communities like Cambridge, Nebr., trust trumps money. Cal and Desiree set out to earn the trust of local farmers and ranchers by cleaning up their facility and establishing high standards. They also started working with schools, donating organs to biology classes and engaging with FFA and 4-H groups. They are currently working on a new program through which show animals raised by 4-H and FFA students will be purchased by local business leaders, processed, then sold to schools at a discount. Posters on the cafeteria wall will advertise the student's hard work: "Now serving Amelia's pork.

 

The Winelands have learned that there are many ways to start a farm to school program and many potential leaders. Sometimes the change-maker is the superintendent, sometimes it's the nutrition director, and sometimes it's the passionate owner of a meat locker.

 

We are showing kids how they can build businesses and how their English and business teachers can help them build business plans while their math teachers are helping with the finances," Desiree says. "There are setbacks and delays, but like plants or anything that grows, it takes a lot of elements working together. And it takes time.”

 

Through their efforts, the Winelands have won awards and have even been honored by the governor of Nebraska. But the highest honor they have received is the respect of the farmers and ranchers in their community. Desiree knew she had earned this respect on the day she received the simplest of invitations.

There's a table at Shirley K’s coffee shop in Cambridge where a group of farmers gather for coffee every day. Seats at this table are more coveted than seats on the city council. But recently, when Desiree dropped into Shirley K’s, one of the old men called her over and asked her to join them so they could hear about all about what she and Calvin had been up to. It’s hard to overstate this honor.

 

Meanwhile, the grapes that were planted in the spring of 2011 are growing. If all goes well, their first harvest will be in the summer of 2016. In the Army, Desiree would inspect her troops as they stood at attention to see how they were doing and to make sure they were mission-ready. Now she says that each one of the vines is like a formation of soldiers. She inspects them as she walks the fields – from top to bottom – correcting anything that is out of order.

 

After a career in the military where she always had a mission to accomplish, Desiree says she spent her first years in Nebraska searching for her next mission. "When I arrived, I was lost," she said. "But through agriculture I found a mission and my purpose. Agriculture saved me.”

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