- Author: Sophie Loeb
The San Mateo Farm to School Summit, held on April 20th at Elkus Ranch, and sponsored by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, was a chance to bring leaders in the school nutrition together to discuss best practices and procurement of farm fresh products for school cafeterias. Representatives from UCCE Nutrition, San Mateo Health System, and Food Service staff from partner schools, as well as other stakeholders, banded together to create a local purchasing strategy and goals for food service directors.
Some of the major objectives of the Summit included: building future bid strategies that encourage local purchasing, compiling a list of resources and options for doing direct farmer purchases, and forming collaborative working plans with institutional partners. Sessions spanned discussions on Cooperative Purchasing Groups, Marketing and Institutionalizing Farm to School Programs, and Wellness Policy as a Tool for Sustainable Programs, among others.
In attendance was Erin Primer, Food Services Supervisor of Millbrae School District, who oversees the child nutrition activities and programs for 2500 students in all five district schools. Primer's role includes menu planning, recipe writing, procurement, and growing food.
“It is critical to build community coalitions around school lunch reform so that likeminded folks can share ideas and be a united front to make significant changes to our school meal programs. Individually we can do some great things, but together sharing resources and exchanging ideas, we can move mountains,” commented Primer.
Primer emphasized collaboration: namely, combining five or ten districts to collectively purchase farm fresh products can substantially impact the market, and provide serious buying power to the entire group. As with any new shift in purchasing habits, some implementation challenges arise with ensuring availability of produce, food safety guidelines, and cost effectiveness.
The farm-to-table movement has, without a doubt, permeated much of the mainstream culture, whether it is citing local farms directly on the menu, or supplying a wider selection of local produce in grocery, and so- it is only a natural shift to see schools become the new stewing pot for the local food movement.
“Kids are asking mature questions about their food system – where did it come from, how was it grown – they are the consumers of tomorrow and it all starts at school where they begin asking these questions,” commented Primer.
A part of the battle of incorporating local foods into cafeterias is ensuring that students will actually be receptive to new foods, and of course, eat them! Young people today have discerning palates, are not afraid to ask where their food is from, and actively seek choices in the types of food available to them.
“The most rewarding aspect of what I do is working with students – they amaze me all the time! Speaking with students about what they like, what they want to see on the menu, talking with them about the challenges I face makes it easier for them to understand and work with me on how we can make great menus together,” commented Primer.
Primer along with Mary Vollinger of the UC CalFresh program recently tested the impact of local foods on their toughest sell: the kids! The two teamed up for a mini taste testing of Tangelos, which by and large, the kids loved (only 7 did not like the Tangelos according to the survey). Vollinger has worked on a number of school-related nutrition programs including the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement which seeks to make simple shifts to cafeterias that will promoting more nutritious eating habits (i.e. making chocolate milk less visible behind white milk).
“With the USDA ½ cup fruit/vegetable mandatory ruling, it can be hard to get students to eat something they “have to” – but if we make it something that they want, something that is delicious and wanted, they are more likely to consume it rather than throw it away,” commented Primer.
Overall participants from the Summit left with connections among collaborators in procuring and implementing Farm-to-School policies. For many of the participants, the next steps to integrate farm fresh produce into schools might look like networking with local farms, utilizing resources from CAFF, and of course:
“Have fun, get students involved, and taste the products!”- Erin Primer