FallEdible Boston1 Comment

BRINGING LOCAL FOOD TO THE LUNCH LINE

FallEdible Boston1 Comment

WORDS BY SUSAN MCCRORY

Even if the first day of school is no longer a consideration for you at this time of year, it’s hard to ignore the fact that our society still operates on an academic-year kind of mentality. September equals ‘school’ in the macro sense: it marks the re-start of formal obligations and the end of a more relaxed, summer-induced attitude. Not so for the Food Service Director (FSD) in your town. Of the handful you’ll hear from below—those inFramingham,Arlington,Boston,LynnandConcord—nary a one said s/he slows down in the summer. Instead, each gave a wry chuckle at the prospect.

Ironically, it’s fair to say that, not even a generation ago, few of us were aware of who filled the role of Food Service Director and what went into feeding our school kids lunch each day. That cultural landscape has changed dramatically. Obesity rates are rising, municipalities are strapped for cash, a growing number of families rely on school meals to nourish their children and, as a nation, we’ve become increasingly concerned with where, literally, our food comes from.

These societal factors, alone, place Food Service Directors in a particularly ‘hot seat.’ Yet they don’t even begin to touch on the financial challenges of operating within the most heavily regulated food-related industry in the country. Here’s how the National School Lunch Program works. The NSLP is a federally-assisted meal program administered on the state level. Decisions about what foods to serve, and how to prepare them are made by local school food authorities – in other words, Food Service Directors.

Schools that participate in the NSLP receive cash subsidies and donated foods from the USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal nutrition requirements, plus offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children. For the 2011-12 school year, the reimbursement rate for paid lunch in the 48 contiguous states was $0.26. Free lunches were reimbursed at $2.77 per meal, and reduced-price lunches at $2.37 per meal, according to the School Nutrition Association. As these numbers reveal, if a FSD wants to take advantage of cash reimbursements and “entitlement” (i.e., donated) foods from the USDA, the incumbent nutritional guidelines must be met for under $3.00 per student meal, all costs included. Sound tricky? And now, the guidelines are changing. The Federal government’s new My Plate requirements mean that schools will now need to double the quantity of fruits and vegetables served each day. Yet the adjusted rate of reimbursement per student will be a mere $.06.

Amidst these rules, regulations and opportunities, some within the school foods industry have reached out to local farmers as a means of procuring fresh, nutritious produce to help them meet Federal nutritional requirements and operate in the black. One of the primary ways of doing so is through the Massachusetts Farm to School program, a grassroots project based out ofAmherst,MA, which has helped connect farmers with schools since 2004. The benefits of creating sustainable local food purchasing relationships are obvious, and manifold. Farmers gain the security of consistent, reliable demand. Schools districts participate in strengthening the local economy and reinforce the need to eat healthfully. School kids benefit from more frequent access to healthy, locally-grown produce and foods cooked from scratch, which in turn means less consumption of the substandard processed foods that traditionally appear in lunch lines.

To date, there are approximately 95 Farm to School programs in place in the Commonwealth, involving more than 200 school districts preferentially serving local foods. According to director Kelly Erwin,Massachusetts’ inherent strength rests with the fact that growers are geographically close to consumers, literally one with the community. This makes them an obvious resource when it comes to procuring food. The concept of marrying local farms with local schools, which ultimately invigorates local economies while nourishing students, is so powerful, in fact, that the USDA now offers Farm to School grants, available both to eligible school districts and individual schools. (Like the NSLP, such grants are administered on the state level through the Massachusetts Department of Elementary andSecondary SchoolofEducation, or MDESE).

On the face of it, the Farm to School model makes abundant sense on many levels—public health, local economies, the environment. No one in his/her right mind would be against it. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement. I set out to speak with a few of the Food Service Directors in theBostonarea about the challenges they are encountering in making locally-procured foods part of school lunch.

The Seasons

One of the first, obvious challenges for Food Service Directors in bringing state produce into their schools isNew England’s short growing season. Last frost dates can range from late April to early June, first frost dates from early September to the end of October, sometimes later. Those approximately 120-180 days do not handily overlap with the school “serving season”—the mandated 180 days of the academic year running roughly from September to June.

This disconnect eliminates quite a few local-grown products. For example, zucchini and broccoli “whither out,” according to Brendan Ryan, the straight-talking Food Service Director inFramingham,MA. Ryan receives butternut and spaghetti squash through his Farm to School connections, in addition to zucchini, sweet potatoes, apples and Brussels sprouts. Ryan says his staff will fast-freeze the Brussels sprouts, for example, if the quantity received is too great to prepare and serve before spoiling. They can effectively store the produce in “Cook-Chill” bags (thick-gauge plastic bags that close at the top with a metal staple) and “quick menu” the food into the lunch line with relative ease. There is no added cost to Ryan’s budget for the prep work involved.

In Concord, where Alden Cadwell has been shaking up the system in his first year as Food Service Director, Clearview Farm in Sterling, MA, supplies ‘seconds’ tomatoes and zucchini in late August, which Cadwell’s staff then stews, blitzes and/or shreds before freezing. As the school year progresses, the stored, local vegetable appears at lunch as pizza, pasta, tomato soup, zucchini browns or in stir-fry. Keeping up with the late summer harvest therefore means there’s a lot of in-house processing of food that occurs before school begins. (You’ll recall the wry laugh, above.) Cadwell has yet to figure out the labor costs involved, saying they depend on the amount of produce he actually receives and the efficiency of the systems he and staff develop over time. But “tons” of fresh produce is slated to arrive forConcordschool kids early this fall, including lettuce, snap peas, summer squash, cucumbers, apples and peaches. 

InArlington, Food Services Director Denise Boucher takes advantage of locally-grown apples, squashes and tomatoes harvested from Mass farms in the fall. But she has found that the minimum quantities required by some of the farmers participating in Farm to School presents a challenge she has yet to overcome. Even with support waiting in the wings from Farm to School staffers, Boucher feels strapped for time to research potential new relationships with local farmers. Therefore, even while eager to growArlington’s local foods procurement, she’s poised for a second consecutive year of facility-rebuilding inArlingtonthat has placed logistical challenges on her lunchroom staff at multiple schools.

Indeed, Brendan Ryan of Framingham noted that remaining “fluid” is a necessity for any Food Service Director because of the varying quantities of food stuffs that come in, which may be more or less than what’s needed—as true for the locally-grown produce received through Farm to School relationships as for government-supplied commodities such as cheese, milk, dry goods, etc. Cadwell concurred about time constraints. The two farms he currently does business with—the previously-mentioned Clearview, plus Verrill Farm, just up the road inConcord—are plenty from an administrative standpoint once government contracts figure in. He does all the paperwork.

In the final analysis, it takes time to explore and develop financially viable business relationships with farmers, especially when the growing season is short.

The Taste Test: Or, Getting Kids to Eat

As any parent knows, the labor and care that go into preparing meals does not mean a child will ‘dig in.’ At home, this can be maddening. At school, it’s expensive and counterproductive to the goal of changing mindsets and eating habits.

At Boston Public Schools (BPS), the largest of the public school districts inNew England, participating in the Farm to School Program has been made possible through grants and collaborations amongst many state organizations and agencies. BPS Farm to School Coordinator Kim Szeto has been on the job for approximately four years, and now works with Michael Peck,Boston’s new, progressively-minded Director of the Department of Food and Nutrition Services. Szeto has seen the original pilot program of six participating schools grow to 44 Boston public schools with full kitchen cafeterias where Massachusetts-grown produce is regularly on the menu (BPS does not currently have the onsite storage space to stockpile local produce in kitchen freezers, nor has it located an off-site facility to do the same). But while the supply-side of the equation may not pose a challenge when you’re serving over 34,000 meals per day (K-12), and can commit to purchasing over 58,000 locally-grown apples and pears in a four-month period as Boston did last Fall, the demand side of things—the kid side—can be tricky.

In order to expose students to fresh produce they may never have seen before, let alone tried, Szeto instituted “Local Lunch Thursdays.” During the 2011-12 academic year, accompanied by a small Farm to School ‘team’ consisting of parents, teachers and a USDA-funded Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Coordinator, Szeto visited approximately two dozen public schools with a whole vegetable or fruit in hand. Students were able to experience how, say, a carrot or cabbage looks, weighs and feels before it becomes the coleslaw on their plates. Locally-grown collard greens, green beans, broccoli, butternut squash and pears represent some of the other foods introduced to BPS students during these Thursday meetings. Strategically, the food discussed in the morning anticipated that day’s lunch menu, so that students could put their knowledge, and taste buds, to immediate use. They also received nutrition information cards and a take-home recipe to further their learning and make it stick. All said, over 6,000 pounds of locally-grown produce was served in BPS from September through December alone of last year.

The education piece is similarly important in the city ofLynn, where over 9,000 school lunches are served daily (K-12). Kevin Richardson, six years on the job asLynn’s FSD and employed by Chartwells School Dining Services, which collaborates with the Farm to School program, chooses a fruit or vegetable each week that is highlighted on the lunch menu and posted as such in the serving line. At the 5-12 grade levels,Richardsoncommented that the kids appear to be “very responsive” to the featured items, be they whole peaches, apples or pears. Still, locally-grown produce is not picture perfect, of the “warehouse-stored” variety, he observed, and some kids balk. Continually educating students, he says, is important if the Farm to School initiative is to grow. 

InFramingham, taste tests are done for entrée items to ensure some modicum of success in the serving line. Ryan told me that cod and roasted pork have been very well-received by students. Ignoring popular wisdom, he stands by what he’s seen: kids will eat fish. “You have to present and cook it right,” he says. This means a 3.5 ounce portion of cod or haddock, baked in the oven. For the mythically dreadedBrusselssprout, Ryan roasts them with extra virgin olive oil in a balsamic reduction whose caramelized sweetness fights the characteristic bitterness of the sprout. Down the proverbial hatch they go. Alden Cadwell inConcordalso conducts taste tests, particularly for students at the elementary and middle-school level since they tend to be pickier. Even with initial test runs, however, some recipes just flop, he admits. Those locally-grown sweet potatoes will have to be coaxed into a final form other than sweet-potato and garbanzo bean ‘tater tots.’

Both Ryan of Framingham andBoston’s Szeto spoke realistically about how connected kids are to the local angle. Put differently, taste and peer opinion matter. In Ryan’s view, only a small number of kids grasp the importance of eating local. “You don’t [participate in Farm to School] for the monetary gain, or for an ‘atta boy!’ pat on the back. It’s for helping the local economy,” he says. To support learning in a hands-on way, Ryan has overseen the planting of organicSaxonvilleGardens, an impressive vegetable and herb garden on the grounds ofFraminghamHigh Schoolin which secondary-school students help out (a farm in school, as Ryan likes to think of it). This past year the garden yielded 800 gallons of tomato sauce, 30 gallons of basil pesto, 200 cantaloupes and 120 lbs of carrots—plus small amounts of peppers, eggplant and various herbs used in meals served.

Similarly, Szeto feels that the ‘fresh and local’ tag doesn’t always move the school-age kids she works with inBoston. Plain and simple, the food has to taste good. Mangoes and red peppers may be easy sells, “but their friends need to like it!” Szeto insists.

The Cost

With a short growing season and kids’ finicky taste buds collectively agreed upon as obvious obstacles, a third formidable challenge in bringing local foods into schools is budgetary concerns. Yes, money—the proverbial elephant in the room. For at least two of the Food Service Directors interviewed for this article, the per meal food cost, excluding overhead, utensils, etc., runs approximately $1.50. Since dining services is a fee-for-service industry, a Food Service Director should be overseeing an operation that at least breaks even. Profits from meals purchased (regardless of the degree of federal reimbursement) might be spent on new equipment, new staff, new foods.    

Settling on a price point is therefore arguably the greatest challenge for Food Service Directors. Yet price point obviously matters to the farmer as well, especially when it can be more profitable to sell wholesale to grocery stores or retail directly to customers via farmers markets, farms stands and CSAs. Still, the business model for local foods procurement is working, thanks in part to the networking efforts of Farm to School staff and a growing number of Food Service Directors inMassachusettswilling to think out of the box. “The classic [FSD] is focused on the per-meal cost, and will think ‘not possible,’” says Cadwell. Yet he will tell you it is.

Cadwell looked at operating costs and the sourcing of food across the board inConcordand has begun piecemealing together an enviably healthy, fiscally sound school food program. Instead of one or two big volume sellers (traditionally, chicken patties, chicken nuggets and pizza), Cadwell has introduced several ‘good’ sellers instead, including a pulled-pork sandwich and honey chicken. He makes up the money elsewhere, he says, with vegetarian offerings such as mac n’ cheese, grilled cheeses and a baked potato bar, all of which are popular with students. The number of school lunches served grew inConcordthis year, helping Cadwell to a 5% profit margin. InFramingham, participation in the lunch program has been rising on a regular basis, according to Ryan, but he felt it hard to discern whether the growth was due to the poor economy and more children relying on reduced-fare meals or because of the increasing appeal of his food.

Richardson of Lynn spoke candidly of the pending Federal requirements for serving more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains to students each day. The $.06 reimbursement rate represents “a big concern” for Food Services Directors in general, certainly those wanting to look first to local farmers to meet the forthcoming increase in demand. Likewise, Szeto of Boston was frank. Her current budget for fresh fruit and vegetables is less than $.20 per serving. Doubling the quantity of produce with only an additional $.06 from the Federal government presents a serious challenge. She has “no new answer” for it, allowing that it will require some pretty innovative planning on the part of Peck, herself, the menu planner and the nutritionist on staff. Yet it is notBoston’s problem alone. Beyond budgetary constraints, what also concerns Szeto is the false dichotomy that arises as a result between procuring greater quantities of locally-grown, fresh food and the increased costs of training staff (or a third party) to prepare it.

The Time

Finally, perhaps the thorniest point of contention to consider in the ‘good food in schools’ debate: the issue of how much time kids get to spend in the lunchroom eating the strictly regulated, often deliberately procured and carefully presented foods that grown-ups want so badly for kids to eat. Many students move in and out of their cafeteria in 20 minutes. Union contracts are involved, as are state and federal benchmarks for standardized testing.

Arlington’s Boucher laments the lack of time conducive to socializing (yes!) and savoring food as more than jet fuel. How can the positive peer influence of seeing a friend consume butternut squash actually come into play when you barely have time to connect with that friend? Szeto also regrets the daily reality of a 20-minute lunch, implying that it undermines the change in attitude and eating culture she feels the BPS Farm to School program can help foment in the city’s school-age children. Rather than integral, the cafeteria—broadly speaking, learning about nutrition and healthy eating habits—is viewed as tangential to a child’s formal education.

This brings us to the takeaway. There is more than one challenge  in implementing the Farm to School model for Massachusetts Food Service Directors. But, the overarching need is to bring together good-food education with demand and supply in a way that is sustainably profitable for all parties, allowing them to move in the same, progressive direction at the same time. In order to evaluate success  appropriate expectations must be set. We must be realistic,Americais never going to return to being a fully agrarian society. Instead, you just keep innovating and making things work since, in the optimistic words of Alden Cadwell, “anything is possible.”

Sue McCrory is the former Editor & Host of WBUR’s Public Radio Kitchen. She lives in Arlington with her husband and children. She can be reached at suemcooks@gmail.com.