School kitchens take fresh approach for healthier foods

Oct 6, 2013 by

GREEN BAY, Wis. — No one is likely to dispute the advantages of farm-to-school movements, but experts say initiating a program is not as easy as gathering produce from the field and trucking it to your local school cafeteria.

Schools feed thousands of students each day, which means small local farmers may not be able to provide the bushels and pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers or fruit required for each meal. Farm-fresh deliveries also mean hours of cleaning, chopping, cooking and storing foods, requiring additional staff time and training.

The idea of farm-to-school programs is to encourage schools to buy fresh produce from local farmers as much as possible, as well as educating students about the fresh foods they are eating.

There are at least 123 farm-to-school programs in Wisconsin, according to the National Farm to School Network.

Sara Tedeschi, who works with the Wisconsin branch of the National Farm to School Network, said the mechanics of start up can be the most daunting aspects of launching a locally grown school effort. And those challenges vary depending on the size of school districts.

Larger school districts such as Green Bay — the state’s fifth largest with 21,000 students — face challenges in finding enough fresh foods and the costs of hand-preparing foods on a large scale. Smaller districts may not have proper equipment or storage space, and workers may need culinary training.

The Green Bay district is piloting its farm-to-school efforts in four of its 37 schools in 2013-14. The program will introduce students to new fresh foods, create newsletters about locally grown foods and work with families to help them understand the importance of eating more produce.

Amanda Frisque, food services specialist for the Green Bay district, said change starts slowly.

Larger systems often have centralized food services centers, where meals are prepared and then shipped to schools, where kitchens may be small and lack any kind of cooking equipment, she noted. That means fresh foods need to be chopped, prepared and shipped.

The district couldn’t afford to create 26 full kitchens in its elementary schools, she said. Each elementary school has a single food services worker to unpack meals and get things set up for kids to walk through lines. Middle and high schools have their own kitchens, but some foods still are prepared at the food services center.

Even if foods were prepared at the district’s central building, preparation would require additional workers and additional time. Most food service workers are paid about $10 an hour.

The district serves 12,000 lunches per day, and also offers breakfast and afternoon snacks at some schools, she said. To feed hungry students, food services may go through 1,300 pounds of carrots in a week; 1,200 pounds of lettuce. It might serve 1,700 pounds of berries or 350 pounds of celery sticks in a day.

“Bringing in items that are already sliced saves a lot of time,” Frisque said. “We have to look at what is most effective. We have to get it in the almost ready-to-serve stage.”

Adding a penny to the cost of a meal to accommodate higher production costs may not mean much for smaller districts but could be unmanageable for larger districts, said Ashley Ponschok, a farm-to-school coordinator for Live54218, an advocacy organization working with the Green Bay district.

Still, taxpayers could decide it’s worth it. A recent Wisconsin poll found 77 percent of 300 people surveyed said they were willing to pay more for locally grown foods in schools.

The federal Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set up guidelines for schools to provide nutrient-dense and fresh foods. Foods don’t need to be local, but Frisque said it pays to look for ways to provide regional items.

“Our biggest obstacle, though, is finding one farmer to source from, or even a group to source from,” she said.

Other farm-to-school districts in the Green Bay area serve fewer than 6,000 students. Their smaller size means they can more readily buy foods straight from local farmers. They still face obstacles, however, such as a lack of proper equipment or proper training.

“We’re so used to getting our food already processed, our apples are cut and cored, that culinary skills are not needed,” Ponschok said. “Culinary training is the biggest thing, and the cutting and preparing is a whole different process. Many of our food service workers are not chefs. They’re here because they like the kids.

Live54218 is using grant money to spend $11,000 in the next three years to help purchase needed equipment and other items necessary to make farm-to-school programs work. That includes culinary training in spring, in which workers may learn skills such as the best way to hold a knife to cut large quantities of certain foods.

The program will also work with schools to review or learn new recipes.

“You can’t just bring in a whole squash if no one knows what to do with it,” Ponschok said. “Then all you’ve got is a whole squash.

Each school district faces unique issues when launching a program, but much can be overcome, advocates said.

“Sometimes barriers are real, sometimes they are perceived,” Farm to School Network’s Tedeschi said. “There’s a lot of challenges. We encourage schools to take a look at ‘what are our strengths and what are our weaknesses.’

“I often encourage schools to focus on their strengths and start there. Then you’re not throwing yourself against a brick wall.”

School kitchens take fresh approach for healthier foods.

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