Local Produce Provides Healthy Start to the School Year

Food service directors use Farm to School grants to deliver a healthy lunch
August 26, 2015 Updated: August 27, 2015

MIDDLETOWN—As schools in Orange County prepare to welcome students, food service directors are planning how to make their budgets stretch to serve the best lunches possible. Several districts are committed to the Farm to School program for students who have qualified for a free or reduced school lunch.

Four school districts in Orange County take advantage of Farm to School funding–Newburgh, Middletown, Port Jervis, and Valley Central. The grant is based on the free and reduced lunch population.

Stiles Najac, food security coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, drives the Glean Mobile, an 18-foot refrigerated box truck throughout the county. She connects local farmers with food service managers in schools as part of the two-year Farm to School grant.

The USDA’s Farm to School grants help schools receive fresh produce and local farmers to sell produce at its peak. The Cornell Extension works to help school food service professionals get involved and consider them the cornerstones of the program. The Extension partners with the county’s Department of Health to implement the grant.

Najac is in charge of procurement and works directly with the local farmer or distributor. “Creating a thriving farm-to-school program takes a lot of buy-in” she says. “You have to locate the people who are the most interested because they are going to be the ones who carry it until it’s established.”

 Constraints in Food Service

Food service directors face daunting budgetary constraints. “They have a certain dollar that they are looking for. It is actually up to the farmer to meet that,” said Najac.

Bob, Glohs, director of Food Services for SUNY Orange-Middletown, manages two food stops at the college. The Shepard Center cafeteria serves breakfast and lunch weekdays and a salad bar. The Sarah Wells Café in the Rowley Center offers soups, artisan salads, pizza, burgers, “gourmet” hot dogs and a “WAF Stop” for custom waffles.

Both eateries are cash operations and compete with 40 places to eat within a mile of the campus. Like most Americans, college students have developed a taste for fast food. “There is still that strong element that wants their fries and hamburgers. That’s the way they were brought up.” Glohs sees this changing, somewhat. “Students are becoming more and more sophisticated in what they are eating.”  

The Middletown school district has been using local produce for years. The Farm to School and other federal programs support 75 percent of the district’s students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Director of Food Service Eileen Goodman said she only buys local produce.

If we don’t support them, they are going to go out of business and we need farmers.
— Eileen Goodman, Director of Food Service for Middletown schools

Degele Produce Farms in Florida, N.Y. delivers about 60 cases of produce each week which goes to all schools in the district. Apple grower Glory Farm supplies apples. Goodman uses a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. “We give him a lot of business.” The district received a $10,000 grant from Orange County Cooperative Extension which they used for a salad bar in the high school.  

Goodman is a strong supporter of local farmers. “If we don’t support them, they are going to go out of business and we need farmers.” She has a little leeway in her budget and might spend a little more for local produce. “There are times when I might potentially be able to get this cheaper somewhere else but I would rather support my local farmer.”

Goodman keeps a close eye on tastes and preferences with local produce and tries to offer what the kids like. “I really cater to the kids.” She says most students in the district eat only two meals a day, and one is at school. If they don’t like the food, they won’t eat it. “We can’t have that. It’s not going to make for good students. Kids will suffer.” She carefully researches her menus and watches trends and thinks students like the food.

Najac says the Middletown district has the strongest farm-to-school program in the county. Besides consistently purchasing locally, the schools have taste tests in the classroom, and the district planted a school garden near the high school.

The Valley Central School District had one requirement for buying local produce: it had to be within the district and Sycamore Farm fit the bill.

Kevin Smith of Sycamore Farms, a second generation farm in Middletown, works directly with the Walden Elementary School in the Valley Central school district. Najec says Smith “dove into it. He invited kids out to the farm where they learned all about sunflowers and corn, had a tractor ride, and the kids loved it.” She said this kind of buy-in is needed for things to work. The partnership is in its second year.

State and National Efforts

The American Farmland Trust created Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) in 2013 to form “a partnership of agriculture, health and economic development organizations working to increase the purchase of New York-grown foods by institutions.” Farm to SUNY promotes the purchase of vegetables and fruits to four campuses: Albany, New Paltz, Oneonta, and Oswego.

The Farm to School Movement Network “is an information, advocacy, and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and preschools,” according to its website.

Najac says wholesome, local produce helps the next generation to grow into healthy, happy adults. For the farmer, “they are growing their next clientele.”  She views nutritious school lunches as an all-around good deal. “It is an investment in community and an investment in the children.”

To contact this reporter, email yvonne.marcotte@epochtimes.com.