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How to Make Kids Love Their Spinach

By Annie Bass

Welcome to the Northeast SARE Spotlight! SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) offers grants to farmers, educators, universities and communities that are working to make agriculture more sustainable – economically, environmentally, and socially. Learn about whether a SARE grant would be a good fit for you.

The Farmers Market Line

In 2002, Todd Fowler noticed that the kids in his cafeteria deli line were asking for salads. First they wanted vegetables instead of meat, and then they wanted to drop the bread altogether. Todd decided that the time had come to bring local fruits and vegetables to Bloomfield Central, an idea he’d been honing for a while. That year, the lunchroom Farmers Market Line was born.

Students at Bloomfield Central School enjoy local fruits and vegetable in their salad bar.

Bloomfield, a school district of 1100, had Farm to School programs, which featured vegetables of the month for one meal each. An annual strawberry cream day enjoyed great success with both schools and farmers. But Todd thought it was time to take the next step, and give kids access to fresh fruits and vegetables every day. The Farmers Market line featured raw vegetables and two kinds of salad greens, bought directly from local farmers. After a successful year in the 6-12 cafeteria, the program spread to the elementary school.

Finger Lakes Farm-to-Cafeteria

Todd, now the Food Service Director at Bloomfield Central School, is all about next steps. With Bloomfield Central under his belt, he teamed up with Seeking Common Ground, an educational non-profit dedicated to promoting “conscious and restorative ways of life,” to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in four schools. With the help of a SARE Sustainable Community grant, they installed similar programs eight schools and one hospital, and developed a robust network of participating farmers. The next step? Another Sustainable Community SARE grant, which funded the facilitation of similar programs in more districts.

The next step? One hundred pounds of broccoli.

The SARE Project

Unlike other Farm to School programs, Todd and Seeking Common Ground’s scope includes not just schools but hospitals, elder care facilities, and corporate food providers. With a third SARE Sustainable Community grant, they are training cafeteria workers in how to process and preserve local foods so they can serve them through the winter. In a pilot, Todd tried out different methods of preserving broccoli—in very large quantities. They all worked, and Bloomfield students had broccoli through March. Additionally, he deduced the most effective techniques, and is now spreading them to cafeterias that already use local foods in the fall and spring, to help them expand their seasons.

Todd Fowler insists that kids eat with their eyes.

The SARE grant itself covers trainings in preparation for food service providers in the area: kitchen rental, staff salaries, food, and Todd’s salary, as the project coordinator. In the first of a series of five sessions, Todd led an over-capacity workshop in what to do with the spring harvest. 27 food service people cooked mustard greens with kale and two different asparagus recipes, before attending a panel discussion with farmers, food service directors, and a Farm to School consultant. The New York Wine and Culinary Center hosted the event in their teaching kitchen. “They have a chef instructor,” says Deborah Denome, executive director of Seeking Common Ground, “and he and Todd worked together. It was really fun for it to bounce back and forth between them.”

The workshops each use produce that will be in season a month and a half later, Deb says. This gives the providers time to get the recipes on their menus. The first session was mostly school food service providers, and everyone expressed interest in attending a second workshop. But because of the school calendar, the July session is mostly non-academic providers. August, at the beginning of the school year again, attracts a mix of new and returning participants. In this way, the trainings attract a diverse and dedicated group, both widely and deeply influencing the regional industry.

The Results

“Basically,” Todd says, “what this takes is a lot of handholding.” He makes business plans with each participating farmer, and often that involves walking through the logistics. Many farmers don’t have time to deliver their produce to school districts. With Todd, they work out a stop en route to their farmers market booth, or a central location where they can make one drop for more than one school district. On the institutional end, school food services don’t know how to work around the lack of purchasing infrastructure. As chair of the New York School Nutrition Association, Todd helped to change state laws to allow schools local preference in produce. The next step is to include minimally processed goods in the clause, so cafeterias can buy the same apple, both before and after it’s been sliced.

SARE offers sustainable agriculture grants, bulletins, books, an online events calendar and many other resources. Learn more about the Northeast SARE program by visiting www.nesare.org or by contacting Northeast SARE 655 Spear Street University of Vermont, Burlington VT 05405 Phone (802) 656-0471 Fax (802) 656 -0500 E-mail: nesare@uvm.edu

Initiating the programs is hard, but once connections are made, they stick. It’s beyond the scope of a food service provider’s job to find a farmer, get in touch, and work out a contract—so Seeking Common Ground does this for them. In their first SARE grant, they offered a breakfast with farmers for food service directors and distributors. In the follow-up survey, twenty seven participants, both farmers and service directors, expressed interest in implementing a Farm-to-Caf program. Seeking Common Ground administered Cornell’s Farm-to-School in the Northeast toolkit to assess the opportunities and challenges for each institution and farm, and identified very local matches for eight schools and one hospital. The first year of operation yielded $10,000 in new sales for the participating farmers. Now, new sales are impossible to differentiate in the cumulative build of lasting farmer / service director relationships; Seeking Common Ground’s third SARE project involves 16 farms, 6 care facilities, 5 colleges, 3 distributors, and 10 school districts, each with multiple schools.

The results of the toolkit led to Seeking Common Ground’s next set of grants, addressing problems of local food access and food preparation. In their second SARE project, they organized local harvest days in cafeterias, and developed a guide to “How We Started a Farm-To-Cafeteria Program and How You Can Start One, Too.” Todd and Deb regularly send copies of the guide to food service directors around the country who contact them for help. On a regional level, they sit down with neighboring counties and go over questions. “Todd knows all the food service directors,” Deb says, “so that helps.” Several of the surrounding counties have started successful programs as a result.

The Next Step

In addition to the farmers and the institutions, a third, and often neglected, party must buy in for local foods programs to work: the eaters. For Todd, it starts and ends with the kids. “Raw fruits and vegetables are inherently attractive,” he says, “kids eat with their eyes.”

Kids also eat what they know. In Bloomfield, second graders take a class with a school nutritionist, and every year, Todd conducts a cooking visit. One afternoon after such a visit, he received a call from a mother. She was in Wegmans with her second grader, who wanted her to buy butternut squash. “‘Honey, I don’t know how to cook it,’” the call went. But her son said, “‘Mr. Fowler showed me, you just cut it in half, take the seeds out, and bake it.’” Todd chuckled. “I said, that’s pretty much right.”

This article discusses SARE grant CNE10-069. To view the final report, available in 2011, visit http://sare.org/MySare/ProjectReport.aspx?do=viewProj&pn=CNE10-069. For more information, contact  info@seekingcommonground.org.

Annie Bass was a summer intern with the Cornell Small Farms Program in 2010. She may be reached at arb258@cornell.edu.  Molly Shaw is a Cornell Cooperative Extension Fruit and Vegetable Specialist in the South Central NY Ag Team.  She may be reached at meh39@cornell.edu.

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