Nonprofits – Farm to School table: Fresh food to classrooms, communities and local school cafeterias

Cornell Cooperative Extension Farm to School grant coordinator and adult agricultural coordinator Nicolina Foti hands out apples to students in Carter Whalen’s horticulture class at Galway High School
Cornell Cooperative Extension Farm to School grant coordinator and adult agricultural coordinator Nicolina Foti hands out apples to students in Carter Whalen’s horticulture class at Galway High School

School lunches are not what they used to be. Today, increasing numbers of schools are working to serve their students farm-fresh produce and other locally sourced foods.

In the past few years, some of those efforts in Saratoga County have been bolstered by the Farm to School Program, funded by a grant through the state Department of Agriculture and Markets to Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County in 2018, and renewed for two additional years.

“The mission of the Farm to School program has to do with the classroom, the community and the cafeteria,” said Nicolina Foti, the Farm to School grant coordinator for CCE of Saratoga County.

The first grant incorporated the Saratoga Springs City School District, but when the grant was renewed for another two years, Foti expanded the program to include the Galway, Schuylerville and Corinth school districts in addition to Saratoga.

Examining their roots
Foti spearheads a team effort to teach students where their food comes from locally, to have them try local foods and to help them learn the health benefits of eating locally sourced produce.

Pitney Meadows Community Farm, a nonprofit formed in 2016, participates in the program, working with food-service directors to introduce into the schools local produce from the farm. Its location right across the street from Saratoga Springs High School made it a good choice for the inaugural year of the grant program.

“I think that it’s important for kids to be connected to where their food comes from,” said Pitney Meadows Community Farm’s executive director Lynn Trizna.

One aspect of the program that has worked well is the “Harvest of the Month.” Each month, the school highlights a different fruit or vegetable. Pre-COVID, this took the form of Pitney Meadows employees visiting the schools with samples of local produce for students to try. They also hosted field trips to the farm so that students could see where the produce was grown.

Creating connections
When COVID hit, going into the schools as well as having students visit the farm came to a halt. Instead, Pitney Meadows pivoted to supplying produce to the schools to encourage kids to try new fruits and vegetables.

“We want to provide a connection with the land and with farmers, demystifying farming and growing your own food,” Trizna said.

Pitney Meadows supplies the produce, and the schools take on the job of highlighting the Harvest of the Month food.

For example, in April the harvest food was apples, so elementary students in Galway schools got to taste-test apples in their art classes and provide feedback. “A lot of them were asking for seconds,” Foti said.

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Watermelon was the harvest food for September, so the four schools in the program bought watermelon from Pitney Meadows and highlighted the fruit in various ways.

At Corinth, every student got a slice to try. Foti supplied watermelon-related educational materials for the Head Start, pre-K and kindergarten students. The school made announcements about the locally sourced products and CCE provided signage for the cafeteria. At lunchtime, the school principal, Renee Young, went around to each table of kindergarten students and read them the book “Watermelon Party” by Jasmine Cabanaw, a resource Foti supplied.

“They’re hearing it, seeing it, eating it and doing a worksheet — it’s a totally immersive experience,” Foti said.

In October, with tomatoes as the Harvest of the Month produce, cafeterias in the Saratoga Springs schools will be serving a tomato salad with mozzarella and basil as part of the lunch menu. They let students know the tomatoes are from Pitney Meadows, near their schools.

“I think it helps them see that the product is grown right by their house,” said school lunch program director Eric Bush. “They can see it and they can go visit the farm. I think it helps promote New York produce.”

Local focus
In October, cafeteria staff at Corinth made marinara sauce with tomatoes from the farm. The sauce recipe came from local chef Kevin London of Farmhouse Food, who is a proponent of the farm-to-school movement and is working with CCE’s program as a consulting chef under the grant.

“I am working with the farm and the school food service teams to try to better develop systems on both ends to enable our school districts to consume more products from Pitney and other local producers,” London said. “As a chef and as a parent in the Saratoga school district, it is my hope to expose healthy and nutritious foods to more kids more often.”

London is also training the schools’ culinary teams on processing foods for immediate service as well as on how to store them for the winter months. This, London said, will maximize the amount of food schools can purchase within their budgetary constraints.

Sarah Keen, food service manager for the Schuylerville Central School District, has been incorporating an increasing number of local products into her school lunch menus. In addition to food the school purchases from Pitney Meadows, there are products from Capital Roots in Troy, Old Saratoga Mercantile in Schuylerville and Saratoga Apples. Eggs and milk also come from local sources.

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“I think it gives students an opportunity to eat fresh products, perhaps more nutritious ones, and it also gives them a connection to their community,” Keen said.

Foti has high praise for the food service directors who were willing to continue with the Farm to School Program even through the pandemic.

“They’re wearing a lot of hats,” Foti said. “They’re not just directors. They’re front-line cooks, and they do ordering, serving and balancing budgets. It speaks volumes that these food service directors decided to come and do this in addition as well.”

School cafeteria staff played a crucial role in getting nutritious food to students and their families at the height of the pandemic. Keen’s staff provided meals to remote students as well as hybrid students when they were not in school and on weekends.

“It was serving such an important purpose — continuing the availability of those free and nutritious meals to students,” Keen said.

Foti points out that the Farm to School program has an underlying tone of food equity. “Not every family has the ability or the means to buy locally sourced produce or to have healthier options,” she said. “It gives them all an option to have that food available to them.”

Coming together
Beyond the grant for the program, Foti is working with Farm to School directors at the Cooperative Extension Offices in Essex, Warren and Washington counties, an effort organized by Kali DeMarco, the Farm to School Coordinator for CCE of Warren County.

DeMarco points out that all the Farm to School coordinators have different specialties and that each county has its own challenges in getting fresh, healthy foods into schools and to families who may face food insecurity issues.
“I’ve been coordinating with the neighboring counties, especially after the pandemic,” DeMarco said. “I thought we could crowdsource some of these challenges and initiatives that we have going on,” she said, allowing each coordinator to introduce different themes and topics based on his or her expertise.

“We’re all working together to strengthen the consistency of the Farm to School program in our area,” said Foti, noting that many farms cross over into more than one county. “We’re all working toward a common goal.”
DeMarco sees the cooperation between CCE offices as a teaching opportunity.

“We can talk about how communities work together and how solutions don’t have to be only in one community,” she said. “It’s a larger metaphor for what we’ve learned from COVID, with its ongoing problems and challenges that happen every day.”

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Categories: Life and Arts, Nonprofits 2021

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