The Best Advice You’ll Get on How to Implement a Farm-to-School Program.

Start anywhere, start somewhere.

The best advice you’ll get on how to implement a farm-to-school program.

My advice for anyone who wants to implement a farm-to-school program is to start anywhere, start somewhere.

Start as small as you need to start to be manageable and successful. If it means one meal, once a month and the ripples spread, just however small. In a school district, if there is a site that might be better because it has better facilities, and if a willing parent group or teacher is excited and enthusiastic, then start there, where something is in place. Maybe a farmer has a child who attends school in the district. There are lots of places to begin.

I’ve worked on change at the state policy level, but right now it makes more sense for me to devote my attention to working the front line. There wasn’t really the support for someone to work on the policy level. But the front line is a place where I could show that change is possible. And then hopefully, the policy process here in Healdsburg will follow.

My daughters and I have been here in Healdsburg for six years. Our school district is beyond broke, and many families with school-age children can barely afford to live here anymore. They are moving out, and more expensive homes are moving in. Therefore, the school enrollment district-wide has dropped just in the time we have been here.

My first year assignment was to open up the program with the district at the junior high kitchen. About the time I got here, some nutrition education funds from the SHAPE program were offered and I had had some experience with them. I didn’t know one person here in terms of building a team, but I knew it was the right kind of funding for here, so I wrote a grant and got $30,000 for the junior high program. I made the executive decision of no soda, no junk, and I said we’re not only going to do that, we’re going to try something new.

We launched the program at the junior high, but I had to reel my vision back in as soon I got to know the people. The junior high kitchen is a production kitchen. I would redesign it now because originally it was set up as a snack bar for fast food. I would really encourage any new school that is building a new facility or changing an old one to have a very open, beautiful serving line that everyone eats from—open, with beautiful presentation, where the food is right there for the kids. We are held back by the design of our current facility from the kind of service that we would like to do. We’ve struggled with that. But even with that, we’ve had to move forward.

We’ve done what we can to market all the food to all the kids. We had fresh hot food coming out all the windows, especially during the first year and into the second year at the middle school. We’ve offered samples and taste tests. We’ve gone into the classrooms and done cooking in the classroom. We’ve marketed our program in so many ways; two for ones, information tables in the cafeteria. We brought in Odwalla drinks. Kids didn’t want to try the green drinks until their friends tried them and liked them, and then it was okay. We did taste-testing with the kids of anything healthy that we could think of that we thought kids might like.

Many kids were coming to school without breakfast and getting Funyons and Diet Pepsi at first break. That’s what many of the returning 8th grade students were eating when I arrived. A lot of these kids hadn’t eaten with us in the new program yet. The junior high kids are experiencing bringing their own money to school to buy à la carte and snack food for the first time. It takes some doing to get them accustomed to the new foods that we’re serving.

One of the things that we did to build relationships within our school community—which I realized was the key to building trust—was to get everyone familiar with what everyone else was doing. This was not the case before. We tried a guest chef thing, so that once a month we would invite a guest chef from within the school community. The format for these events was using some of our select USDA commodities, fresh produce, and different cultural kinds of meals. The first guest chef we had was head of maintenance of that site. He cooked this beautiful Cajun meal because that was his background. One of the school board members did garlic mashed potatoes and roasted chicken. We served the entire junior high, which was our experimental site for one and a half years, as long as the grant funding lasted.

A lot of the first year menus that I wrote used the familiar packaged frozen burritos, but we would add a good fresh salad and some fruit, like kiwis, which all becomes a part of the education. I know a lot of these kids eat fast food, but they can learn by our example what a well-rounded, nutritious meal can be. So we served the packaged burrito, added some healthy salad and fruit, and it was a worthwhile step in the right direction. After a little while, we pulled the packaged burrito and replaced it with a healthier version of our own making. By that time the kids were ready to say, “This is great!” because by then their tastes were beginning to tune into something different.

From there, that rolled into reopening one of our elementary school sites that had a kitchen. That was a likely place to start. That just took off. Our participation went off the charts. That kitchen is also the site that transports to a small district that doesn’t have any type of kitchen facilities, so they come over to pick up the meals we prepare. Soon the other sites began to say, “Hey, what about us?”

By the end of that next year we were ready to go, and our food staff members were hands on hips, but eyes sparkling. This is not easy, and it was not an easy transition. Now, there may have been grumbling, but their eyes were shining the whole time because they were cooking and creating and being included and involved. Fall 2000, we opened the high school kitchen which now serves as a district central kitchen.

Building relationships was so key to us moving along together. The food staff members were into it. I could tell from the very first time I mentioned the idea that there was a spark there and that this was going to be good. A lot of these women have been here for many, many years, prior to the prepackaged meals, so they came forth with all their stories of how it used to be. So they had life coming back into them around their profession. There is a great sense of pride and ownership in their life skills, so when we tapped into that, that’s when things really took off.

A big part of it is that this new style of food service ushered them, and all of us, out of our comfort zone. It was a stage-by-stage thing. The first couple of years that I was here, we were still funded for professional development days through the grant, so we had actual work days when the kids weren’t here. We did some training then, but really any staff training has to be on the job, which has its challenges. But when people are into what they are doing they bend more than if it’s just being imposed on them.

For staff development, we’ve done cooking projects that emphasized how to produce something and how to eliminate a lot of the fat and the salt—how to use fresh food and not packaged, and how to look at the menu and create the simplest menu possible. We developed a strong focus on production and serving. This is separate from the accounting and production records we are mandated to keep. We spent time on how to look at the whole menu, keeping all the parts that they are responsible for in mind.

It’s important to remember that people learn in different ways. Some will get it in the setting of one day’s lesson. Others won’t fully understand it until they have the opportunity to apply it. But over the course of time, people are getting it. There is so much more problem-solving going on now. The staff hardly comes into my office anymore to solve problems. They’re figuring it out. That continues to happen.

What’s so gratifying is to see the spark of how good they feel about themselves, and how they are with the food and the kids. That’s how they need to be. I have stressed that you have to be in a good way around this food and these kids, and if you’re not, then we need to figure out what is going on. Our perspective is that we have the honor of providing meals for kids. And I love my staff for the high level of connection that is going on around what they are doing. It really shows up in our participation numbers. No one ever complains about our food, ever.

It’s unfortunate that mealtime is not honored or recognized by school districts as it should be. That time is not protected, not set aside and staffed in an honorable way. It’s a far less than good situation. Our district is 55 percent Free and Reduced eligible, but that is not a clear reflection of community need. There are still a lot of students out in the community that could benefit from our services. At the elementary sites, we’re serving over half of the enrollment in the schools. About a quarter of the kids in junior and high school eat with us. Those numbers would be even higher if our lines weren’t so long, and our lines wouldn’t be so long if our facilities were different.

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs hold us to many, many regulations around the school meal initiative (SMI) review. We’re offered several different options on how to account for the nutrition components in our meals. The other part of it is the eligibility applications. Both those aspects are really scrutinized every five years. Our district had just been reviewed before I got here. So this whole five years that I’ve been here, we’ve been enacting these sweeping improvements in the school meal program. The whole goal was to create a program that was fiscally sound and could pass the USDA review with fresh, simple, good meals.

Last spring, we had our review and our reviewer was here for a week and went through every single piece of paper, nutrient, and menu—it’s an extremely thorough review. And we passed. As far as the meals went, she really had to stretch her brain to take a look at some of these menus because we’ve done some different things. Like with tamales, we have a good commercial purveyor for tamales, but these tamales don’t quite have enough protein for our bigger kids to qualify for our two ounces of meat/meat alternate. We supplement protein by serving chips and a really good homemade bean dip or savory, hot beans. That’s the entrée—those two things, rather than one contained unit.

I spent a week by our reviewer’s side as she asked, “What’s this, what’s that, how do you deal with this, what’s going on here?” I would explain our way of meeting the nutritional requirements to her. It had to make sense to her from her perspective. It took some working with her to get her into the flow, so to speak, of how we’re doing things here. Nowadays, a lot of outside vendors are producing entrées that already meet these regulations for the USDA. That’s a convenient, grab-and-go thing for schools.

A formula for me in developing our own menus is: a hot entrée, fresh veggies, one other item, which is typically a grain bread, and then fresh fruit. I keep it simple, and I keep it open, and depending on what’s seasonal and fresh and available, we can plug it in. For example, we had a frost two weeks ago so that suddenly ended tomatoes and peppers locally. Because I’m not so specific, it’s okay. I just fill it in with something fresh and local that I can get.

Food-based menu planning is one of the options the USDA offers to schools. It’s not computer-based. Of course, it is easier if you are getting prepackaged meals, since a lot of the nutritional analysis is taken care of for you because it is completely standardized. But if you are doing fresh food production, it’s a bit more challenging because you have to look up all of the ingredients and figure it out yourself. Again, it consumes a little more time, but it’s manageable.

The USDA commodity program also publishes a cookbook that contains a lot of nutrient serving information. So we have relied on some of that. But food-based menu planning is an old way of figuring out the nutritional component, used at a time when kitchens were well staffed. You know, people to run the mixer, take the change, run the nutritional analysis. So we’ve had to really modify these recipes according to the level of staffing that we have. So again, there’s so many “You cant's”, but you can!

We’ve done a lot of different kinds of menus over the years and I’ve had to reel in my big vision and modify it by site. You need to meet people, and staff in particular, where they are. If a particular staff group really isn’t there yet, then we modify the menu for them, but with that same basic concept of good and fresh—we’ll never sacrifice that part of it.

An area of real interest for me is to watch the quality of the USDA commodity food program that we rely on steadily improve, and to see the politics around how that food is distributed. We know several months in advance what commodity foods will be offered, and we can choose from that published list. There’s a large inventory of commodity food that I’d never consider, but there are a surprising number of decent products too, especially if used as ingredients with fresh things.

For example, there are really good deli turkey roasts that come in raw. We roast and season them, slice them, and make a sub sandwich with them. We add local downtown bakery bread, local lettuce and tomatoes when they are in season, and turkey. And so the turkey roasts are $2.70 for 40 pounds. If you use them for protein, then you can afford a good roll, and you can afford a few extra cents for a nice helping of fresh, locally grown lettuce. The bean salad that goes with our tamales is all commodity beans, and then canned kidneys and garbanzos. Bean and cheese burritos have commodity beans and cheese, seasoned really well, with fresh cilantro. Soups and chilies are made at the end of the week. We use up the veggies and other things that won’t last until the following week. That all goes into the soups, perhaps with some commodity pasta. The kids love that.

Doing business with the farmers depends on what season it is, and what’s happening on the farm. For example, right now in Northern California we’re in early winter. We’re going into a period where the farmers are saying, “I won’t be seeing you for awhile.” Just today a farmer let me know that this delivery of apples may be the last until next year. We’ve had a freeze, so it’s going to be a little while until we’re back on track for the lettuces and peas. It could take until February or March. So we’ve got some weeks to go before all the fresh local produce is back in production. There’s no local citrus grown right here, but there’s regional citrus, and so we have to broaden our buying circle. It’s a real learning experience dealing with seasonal production, but it’s bringing us all closer to this place.

I started working with farmers about three years ago. Generally, I’ve worked with about seven or eight farmers. Not all of them at the same time. Sometimes it’s really busy and sometimes it’s not. Most of the time, I created relationships with these farmers by calling them on the phone. I let them know that the district was interested in purchasing fresh local produce and products. But I’ve also had them call me. There’s a wonderful pear grower over in Lake County who heard about what we’re doing over here with the food in the schools. He has beautiful, beautiful organic pears, several different varieties, and it’s regional enough for me. He brings his fruit over here for us.

It can be time consuming in terms of being in touch with them, creating purchase orders, getting them paid, but not insurmountable. In a district that has any type of clerical support it would be easy to do that. In our case, it’s me doing all of it and it’s a little bit more time consuming. But for the sake of building this program and what we’re creating together, it’s okay with me to do that. We work with Love Farm here in town, and Ed Miller at Carrot Top Farm, and there’s Dry Creek Peach and Produce. We get the most delicious peaches from them. There are local kiwis.

The main thing is building and maintaining these valuable relationships. To me, farmers are artists. I need to be flexible with them and meet them in the middle with pricing. They have been extremely gracious with us, and they are excited to be with schools and kids and moving something positive forward through our schools. They understand that there’s so much good education going on around that.

If you ask me what success looks like here, it looks like cleaning up the food supply even more. In terms of how we purchase, we are moving toward more and more organic. That’s the goal. Being able to be in the classroom more. We are holding that vision for how we take care of our kids and always looking to do better. In terms of the food, it means good, fresh, and close, with more attention to the values in the commodity food program.