Farm-to-school success puts focus on finances

BRISTOL — Even after close to two decades of efforts to get local foods into local educational institutions, words like “fresh” and “tasty” are not universally applied to school cafeteria food.
Yet school nutrition guru Kathy Alexander continues to make Farm to School a centerpiece at Bristol-area schools and this year expanded that work into Vergennes-area schools.
“When people say ‘Oh my god, how do you do Farm to School?’ I say, ‘Well, you call up a farmer and you buy the food,’” Alexander said. “It’s not rocket science.”
Alexander’s decisions to put local beef or chicken on the menu instead of what other kids in other schools call “pink slime,” continues to stand out. She recently shared her thinking behind how to make locally grown foods a big part of Vermont children’s eating experience.
“It’s really all about good financial management. That just is the bottom line,” said Alexander, director of the Addison Northeast Food Service Cooperative. “Our approach is we’re running a business, so we have to have really good financial management practices… . And like any business we have limitations … and we set priorities.”
Hand in hand with tight budgeting goes careful planning — an intricate orchestration of materials and labor that keeps local ingredients ordered, delivered, processed and served — and a commitment to building revenue.
Participation of students in school lunches in Vergennes-area schools was at the statewide average of 40 to 45 percent last year. Alexander took over at the start of the school district’s fiscal year, and participation in the school nutrition program jumped to 60 percent in September alone. Participation at Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANESU) schools in Bristol, Lincoln, Starksboro, Monkton and New Haven has been at 60 to 65 percent for some time.
At present, Alexander sources produce, chicken, beef, cheese and eggs locally, working with a variety of farms. About $45,000 of ANESU’s $340,000 food purchasing budget — some 13 percent — goes to locally raised food; as does about $20,000 (almost 10 percent) of the $210,000 food budget in the Addison Northwest schools in Vergennes, Ferrisburgh and Addison.
In working with producers, Alexander said she and new second-in-command Laura LaVacca carefully weigh a number of factors, including: quality, availability, price, transportation, service and consistency.
Quality, for example, can mean a lot of different things in Alexander’s kitchens. For apples, she said it’s important to get the right size. Not huge apples, but smaller ones the right size for a child to eat. Beets on the other hand need to be three inches in diameter or more because smaller beets cost too much to process. The schools buy butternut squash but not Hubbard, because massive Hubbards take too long to process. Cucumbers shouldn’t be too big or too seedy.
Service might include whether produce arrives already washed carefully. Again, Alexander is managing her labor costs so that cooks in the schools’ kitchens can focus on chopping not washing. Transportation is also important. Can the farmer deliver to the schools and can they deliver on time?
Alexander and LaVacca put food purchases out for bid, select farmers and negotiate pricing centrally. Then each school handles its own ordering and delivery, using farms and prices already agreed to. The current system has taken years to develop, Alexander said.
“First you figure out your values what you really want, then you decide on your end goal and then the systems that are going to support that,” she said. “Usually the first system you put together is not it.”
Vermont’s short growing season present its own challenges. Alexander can source beef, chicken, cheese and eggs locally year round. But local fruits and vegetables are limited to the first few months of school and a bit of the last.
“We spend a lot of money — a lot of money — in September and October and November, and I try not to freak out when I look at all the bills, ” Alexander said. “We know that we have this very short window that we can get local produce in. So we’re trying to make sure that we do a really, really good job of putting as much as we can in fresh for as long as we can.”
Spring pickings can be slim, but Alexander said the school kitchens are always looking for spring crops like lettuce, spinach, fiddle heads and asparagus.
“Any farmer who’s got anything, we buy it,” she said.
Extending local produce past the growing season also involves choices that have to do with managing the kitchens’ labor budget. Alexander says it is well worth it to process and freeze local winter squash because it has so many uses and because the taste is so superior. But tomatoes? She uses those fresh, but otherwise buys canned because the flavor-to-processing cost ratio doesn’t pay off.
Alexander said that one of the greatest barriers to schools doing more Farm to School is that many Vermont schools “don’t have separate school nutrition budgets.” This disconnect between school nutrition staff and the business office leaves staff unable to make informed and effective decisions about the kinds of foods they want to prepare.
“It happens throughout Vermont that there’s a disconnect between financial management and working in a school kitchen,” Alexander said. She has been teaching classes in school nutrition budgeting and said the School Nutrition Association of Vermont, of which she is a member, is at work on the issue.
While providing students with healthy food to fuel their learning is tops in Alexander’s commitment to using local ingredients, she said it’s also important that local farmers know they’re feeding local kids and that kids eat and appreciate foods grown right here.
Years ago she said a local dairy farmer at a forum said he wanted to know his hard work benefitted his children at school.
“So I said to myself right then and there, ‘We’re going to put Cabot cheese in every single macaroni and cheese we do.’ We’re going to commit to that because I want that farmer to know that his kids are enjoying the fruits of his labor — no pun intended.”
She said she more deeply realized the impact that Farm to School can have on kids when she brought kids to Montpelier to testify on behalf of the state’s Farm to School grants program several years ago. After all the “experts” and several students had spoken a legislator leaned forward and said: “Here’s what I want to know, what difference does all this make?”
“At that moment, all the professionals had nothing to say,” said Alexander.
Then an ANESU seventh-grader piped up and said: “I think twice. When I eat food now I think twice about where it comes from, who grew it, how it was prepared, how it was grown, how much I paid for it. I think about all that stuff. I think twice.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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