Most local activists will tell you they’re not out to save the world. Julie Holbrook and K’Cee Leavine will admit to no such thing.
They see child nutrition in schools as a fundamental building block to human health and happiness, and a fundamental right of everyone taken under the wing of public education. To them, the Farm to School movement is a moral obligation. “We have a responsibility to feed kids well,” Holbrook said.
And that responsibility doesn’t stop at local boundaries. “We would love to see (scratch cooking) go statewide, and nationwide,” Leavine said.
But first, there are still districts in the local school service area that have been reluctant to buy in. That’s understandable, said Holbrook: “It’s a mind-shift, letting go of the old way and trying something new.”
The new way isn’t always popular, and cafeteria workers have often treated it with distrust. Much of the Champlain Valley Educational Service’s model — scratch cooking, elimination of plastics — is essential to the program’s success. For cafeteria workers trained in the conventional ways, there’s not a lot of room for negotiation or control.
But these cooks ultimately want to please the students, and when they see that students are drawn to the new foods, they begin to become invested in the Farm to School program themselves.
“When you win them over is when they start to get feedback from the kids,” Leavine said. They begin to develop a food-related relationship with the students, bantering about the menu and what goes into it. The cafeteria staff take ownership over their work and pride themselves on delicious meals that support both the local economy and student nutrition.
Leavine recalled the case of the home-made alfredo sauce, when a thumbs up from a popular high school student was all it took for students and staff alike to give it their seal of approval. The Farm to School initiative views cafeteria time as quality time, a chance to talk and think about foods. If the ingredients of an alfredo sauce can be open for consideration, that’s a win.
Champlain Valley Educational Services’ food division will work with any district that expresses an interest. Through experience, they know it works, Leavine said, whether it’s a small district such as Keene with its 170 students, or a large district like Plattsburgh with 1,800.
This summer, CVES took its scratch cooking and Farm to School program on the road at a state educational conference, where it showed its work to administrators from across the state.
“This was born from a passion to ensure maximum potential for children’s health, wellness and learning,” food service managers said in their presentation. “We have grown to six school districts and the BOCES, totaling 13 campuses with over 3,700 students.”
They showed photos of their food — bright greens, oranges, and reds, representing fresh broccoli, carrots and potatoes in their natural state, real colors, not artificial ones that can often be found in processed products available in cafeterias.
Gone along with the dyes and preservatives were processed products like hot dogs, donuts, sugary cereals, instant potatoes, premade frozen meals, and bagged sauces.
In their place were local beef, yogurt, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. Mashed potatoes and gravy were made the old-fashioned way. So were biscuits, sauces, breads, granola, and muffins. Desserts were made from scratch, ensuring the quality of the ingredients.
These changes come with challenges, Holbrook said. Under Farm to School, food-service managers have to round up foods not from one giant distributor, but from a number of local, regional and state sources. And with the increase in scratch cooked items, and elimination of disposables, more jobs are created to staff the kitchen. To flourish, Holbrook said, school administrators must fully buy in, and expect that at first there may be some pushback.
“We’ve been told (by some systems) ‘we’re too big, we can’t do that,” Holbrook said. “We’ve been told that we can’t use raw eggs because they’re not safe unless they’ve been pasteurized. We’ve been told the kids won’t eat (natural foods).” To change minds requires both firmness and delicacy. “We’re not saying what anyone is doing is wrong,” Leavine said. In the end, it’s really the feedback from the kids themselves that moves the needle.
“Innate and intuitively, if something looks good and smells good, they will try it,” Holbrook said. “At the end of the day, this is not hard — this is logical, and it makes sense.”
This is the final installment in series. If this series has inspired you and you’d like to get involved in Farm to School in some way, please fill out the form at this link, or get in touch with Farm to Institution Educator, Meghan Dohman firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is part five in a series of five articles; you can read the other stories in this series here.