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June 15, 2014

Your Green Valley: Farm to School Network and ‘scratch kitchens’

The Downtown Terre Haute Farmers Market has been open for business for the past couple weeks. As the fresh produce continues to roll in, an important question should be considered: Can we grow more local food to better feed the children in the Vigo County School Corp. while supporting local growers?

Training the staff

The idea is nothing new for Steven Obendorf, president and executive chef of HandCut Foods in Chicago. Prior to starting his own company, he worked in restaurants and hotels for more than a decade before helping one Chicago school go from a heat-and-serve kitchen to a “scratch-cook” one. “It was a tough switch because a lot of the staff were not used to holding a knife and cutting vegetables as part of the production process,” Obendorf said.

Training the staff was probably the biggest mountain he had to climb. He says he worked hard to impress upon the staff the importance of eating healthy, fresh food. While many were resistant to the change, over time they realized it was not only good for the students’ health, but theirs as well.

Kitchens and classrooms

Students have come to know the smiley fries and pressed chicken nuggets. Unfortunately, there are a lot of kids who have never been exposed to celery. They don’t live in a home where anyone is feeding them celery or serving them a potato that is not in French fry form. “When children are able to develop a relationship with making their own food choices, they are more likely to make better food choices,” National Farm to School Network Communications Manager Chelsey Simpson said.

In order to guide students away from processed foods, Obendorf worked to incorporate food into the conversation of every aspect of the lesson plan.

In the spring, they would talk about asparagus, where it was grown and about the local farmer who grew it. This was a method to put more names and relationships to the food product to make it seem less foreign. Farm-to-school is a great way to incorporate hands-on learning. School gardens are great tools to teach math (measuring rows for a bean crop), science (soil testing) and history (native plants and the introduction of invasive plants).

The school has an open-kitchen policy. For example, if the students were studying Greece, at the end of the lesson, during off peak production time, they would prepare and eat a Greek meal. To make it easier on the teacher, the kitchen staff would work with teachers to find out what they had coming up in their lesson plan, and would try to come up with a food item to accompany it. “The teachers were grateful we had a project to tie into their lesson plan,” Obendorf said.

Baby steps

Transitioning out of a heat-and-serve kitchen is not an overnight change. Obendorf recommends taking a gradual approach, by starting with one project at a time.  According to Vigo County School Corp. Food Services Coordinator Tom Lentes, Vigo County schools already allow students unlimited fruit and vegetables at lunch time.

Other small steps include:

• Making all bread in house with flour, water salt and natural yeast.

• Many farmers may have a lot of tomatoes not pretty enough to be sold in a supermarket with only a few days from rotting that would be a perfect choice to be made into a sauce or soup.

• Breading chicken in house to cut down on preservatives, added sodium and other ingredients often hidden in processed foods.

• Providing a comparison tasting of fresh, local options versus commercially grown food.

• Bringing in a farmer to talk about his crops.

A more in-depth list can be found on the Farm to School Network website at farmtoschool.org.

Investing in the community

The Vigo County School Corp. last year spent $2,870,000 on meals and food for extra events. Lentes says they have to produce a lunch which costs $2.55 per student, calculating in the food, payroll and billing costs. The meals they serve meet and exceed the National School Lunch Program guidelines.

What if we were to take that nearly $3 million and invest it in local farmers and the health of the students in the school system?

“Schools are major purchasers for those of us who believe having local food systems is a vibrant piece of a healthy community; there are few better customers than schools,” Simpson said. “The buying power schools have can really help build up the infrastructure. Many schools are feeding thousands every day, and that could greatly expand a single farmer or single distributor entire markets.”  

When schools decide to buy local, it is not just the farms that are profiting, there are local distributors and processors. Where a processing facility may not exist, a need would be created along with jobs.

“Instead of investing in packaging and processed foods, you are investing in the staff, students and local economy,” Obendorf said.

Taking the first step

Fortunately, the guidebook has already been made and applied in more than 26 states and can be found on the Farm to School Network’s website. The Network is a way to help connect the local food movement, share resources, information and serve as an advocacy hub. Each state has its own expert on who locals can rely.

“They are a huge resource for anyone who is looking to get connected if you are a school food director and even a parent wanting to bring farm-to-school practices to your school,” Simpson said. “You can reach out to the state lead and get a lot of information on how things are already organized, what farmers you might want to connect with and what training might be available locally.”

With two and a half months before the new school year starts, we have time as a community to pull resources and work toward incorporating more local food into the diets of those who will one day be leading our community.

Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at JaneSantucci@yourgreenvalley.com.

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