As students move down the lunch line, they are given the choice between several items, but not always from a list of local foods.
Now Frederick County Public Schools and two food-focused nonprofits are working together to get more locally grown fruits and vegetables on students’ plates. With money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program, the organizations plan to identify the opportunities and challenges to buying more local produce for school meals.
One of the main challenges right now is that school cafeterias reheat rather than prepare and cook raw food.
“I can’t get [squash] whole, in a case, and deliver them to a school and expect them to process them in a timely manner,” said Steve O’Brey, procurement coordinator in the Office of Food and Nutrition Services at FCPS.
O’Brey has a culinary degree, but most of the employees working in FCPS kitchens do not.
The lack of cafeteria food made “from scratch” may come as a surprise to some, but packaged and reheated fare has been the norm in schools for at least 10 to 15 years, O’Brey said. The danger of bacteria and food-borne illness has routed schools toward contracts with suppliers, who can provide a clean and cooked product before it ever reaches the school’s kitchen.
When it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, however, there is room to add preparation work back into the kitchen.
“We can cut a bell pepper,” O’Brey said. “We can cut a tomato.”
B uying, supplying local
With the school system on board, two food advocacy organizations have started to seek out farms.
Fox Haven Farm and Community FARE — which stands for Food Advocacy Resources and Education — have teamed up to identify farms and supply chains that could provide easy-to-prepare fruits and vegetables to the schools.
Alysia Feuer, the grant manager at Community FARE, is actively seeking farmers who would be willing to grow produce and sell it to FCPS. Recently, she received leads on farms in Boonsboro and Smithsburg that previously supplied produce to Washington County schools. And, yes, both are outside Frederick County.
Among the first steps Community FARE is taking is to define “local.”
Local can mean Frederick County — which Community FARE plans to explore first — but it may also be defined by a certain radius outside the county to find products that fit the schools’ needs and kitchen staffs’ abilities.
FCPS currently buys food from Keany Produce, a Maryland distributor. Part of bringing more locally grown food into the school system could be connecting local farms to a distributor, which FCPS can then buy from, Feuer said.
Another approach is to purchase directly from a farm, which O’Brey plans to try this fall. He has contacted a Frederick County farmer who plans to supply iceberg lettuce, bell peppers and tomatoes to the school, he said.
But it is unlikely the single farm will be able to supply all of FCPS’ demand, or even enough for a five-school pilot program planned for the 2018-2019 school year.
One farm doesn’t have to supply everything, though, said O’Brey, who is happy to buy the same product from multiple farms. Buying from multiple farms would also keep purchases below the $12,499 threshold that requires the school system to seek three quotes on the item.
Making decisions about how to best change FCPS’ supply chain is a main component of the project. In July, the USDA awarded $31,333 for FCPS to create an “action plan” to integrate locally grown fruits and vegetables into its menu. FCPS, Community FARE and Fox Haven Farm committed an additional $15,016, which brings the total budget for the project to over $46,000.
The project will be piloted at five elementary schools next fall with the goal of expanding it to all 68 schools in the future.
H ealthy eating
Hillcrest, Lincoln, Monocacy, North Frederick and Waverley elementary schools will be the five schools to host the pilot.
The schools were selected because they serve large populations of young children, many of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price meals and may have less access to fruits and vegetables at home.
“Kids that grow up eating well ... are going to demand it as an adult,” said Janice Wiles, president of the Land and Cultural Preservation Fund, of which Community FARE is an arm.
When kids demand healthy food, it creates sustainable local food demand, she said. People learn to like and buy whole food rather than highly processed food, which helps farmers and improves the public health of an area.
Feuer, a registered dietitian and the mother of sixth- and eighth-grade girls at Monocacy Middle School, said working to get more fruit and vegetables into FCPS is some of the most exciting and positive public health work she has done.
Wiles agreed, “I am a person who likes to make change. It’s very important to me — and I saw this with my own kids — to teach them how to eat.”
Until September, the organizations will be collecting data and reviewing existing policies and contracts, Feuer said. By the end of the year, she plans to have completed an inventory of the school’s menus, a trash audit and a taste test with students to find out what kids will and won’t eat, so that by the time the grant ends in June 2019, FCPS will have a list of proposed ideas and ordering system in place.
At the same time, an analysis of how long preparation tasks take or what training the schools’ culinary workers need also has to be completed. Everything from delivery to finding enough of the same product also needs to be addressed, O’Brey said. Still, he was optimistic there was demand from farmers and the Board of Education to buy more local food.
“I’d like to hopefully find out the local farms are willing to work with us,” O’Brey said.