By Amy Fovargue and Laura Kington“Adults have made decisions about what children eat all of their lives. Now the students are making those decisions – and connections to local foods!” said Alison Patrick, program manager of Children & Family Health Services at Cuyahoga County Board of Health.
Patrick is the grant manager for the 2016 USDA Farm to School Grant for Cuyahoga County. The Cuyahoga County District Board of Health will use the $100,000 awarded to engage multiple school districts in an effort to expand their farm to school programs. The project will facilitate connections and leverage partnerships across the supply chain to improve access to healthy, locally grown foods and to strengthen the regional food system’s economy, enhance connections to the classroom, and create a Harvest of the Month program.
They are also using the grant money to revitalize a school greenhouse, start up four school gardens, hold a five-week science program called Veggie U for third grade classes, host parent engagement activities such as meet the farmer nights, and provide taste testing for new items on the menu.
It all began when the South Euclid District passed a policy to implement Farm to School. They will overhaul the kitchen by adding a blast chiller. At first, “we had a lot of push back from the food service directors. We needed to do a lot of myth-busting, but we used our position as a health department to influence how this looks.” Patrick said. The district plans to expand their efforts from providing more produce to including grass-fed beef on the menu.
Patrick explained that they did surveys with food service directors by asking them how much they spent on produce, because she had heard produce is the easiest to procure locally in schools. Patrick and her staff asked the directors, “What do you need support with and how can we help you?” By examining what was already purchased that could be swapped for local products and setting achieveable goals with the food service directors, they identified opportunities for farm to school together.
“Last year while this preparation was happening, Brooke Gammie of Quarry Hill Orchard had called and said she wanted to sell her apples to the schools and asked me her how she could she do it. Five years ago this was not a conversation, but now it is,” exclaimed Patrick. They both realized they needed to investigate how to bring local producers into the schools, so when time came to write the Farm to School grant, they focused heavily on the procurement side.
In addition to visiting schools to discuss what’s available locally, Patrick and Gammie have both been busy helping producers get GAP training (which isn’t mandated by food service directors, but is considered in the decision-making process), helping redesign an online producer order form to ease collaboration for producers and schools, and providing professional development for teachers so they can create Harvest of the Month programs and kits that have consistent messaging teaching why fresh, local food is important and where food comes from.
Patrick is making connections as comprehensively as possible by working with other schools in the region, and not trying not to be exclusive about who she works with for farm to school.
Gammie has told kitchen staff, “I am not GFS, where you talk to different people about different aspects of the purchasing relationships – I am the sales representative as well as the person for billing and delivery. As for the quantity Quarry Hill sold to schools, including peaches and apples it was just under 10% of last year’s harvest (2015)”.
“Historically, it had been a challenge to find a buyer via normal wholesale channels that needed smaller apples; the small mouths at the schools are perfect fit for our smaller apples!” she said.
Relationship building is important. The schools have initiated a “meet the farmer” night and offered tastings for the whole family. Patrick says this is paying off. More students are eating their lunches than last year. The success is two-fold, she says: it supports the local economy and it helps kids recognize the food not only tastes better, but why it is important to eat local.
Another farmer who participates in “meet the farmer” night is Farmer Floyd from Once Red Basket Farm, who sells to the South Euclid schools. Farmer Floyd tells them “The lettuce you are eating, I grew.” Patrick says the kids love interacting with him. Students will run up to Floyd when they see him in the community and ask him when he is bringing more food to school, because it tastes better.
Brooke Gammie, Farmer
QUARRY HILL ORCHARDS
The Gammie’s have a fourth generation family farm near Berlin Heights, Ohio. Brooke Gammie found out about farm to school at a Young Farmers Conference. Since the apple is on the national logo, Brooke thought “I am an idiot if I don’t hop on this train.”
Quarry Hill Orchards did not have a lot of trouble starting with F2S because the farm was well positioned by already selling wholesale to groceries. They needed to be GAP certified because of clients like Whole Foods, so it was easy for the school food service directors to accept them. Quarry Hill had already proven to be reliable, understand food safety, and could consistently provide quality produce.
Brooke commented that there are some school districts that are not interested because they deal completely with a third-party food company, and they just don’t have money allocated to get food outside of that contract.
At the Young Farmer Conference, Gammie learned that she should pick one school to start the relationships, but she ended up starting with 20 to make an immediate impact. “This is most exciting for me as I am a “do-er”. She introduces herself and asks the food service directors where they buy their apples. “Then I ask them where they would like to buy their apples, such as from their home state. Then I have paved the way. That introduction has worked successfully in 15 school districts,” she boasted.
Grammie and her husband have a business background after both leaving their corporate jobs to join the fruit farm that was operated by the family. They are striving to support their salaries so they can pay their own way and bring in more revenue. They are concentrating on direct sales, which helps them have an economically sustainable business. “If you allow someone to handle your product in the middle then you lose your ability control the quality to the end user,” Gammie commented.
The teachers at Norwalk just asked the kids to take one bite of the Quarry Hill apples and the kids will finish them after tasting it. “Kids that were not choosing fruit are choosing it now. The cafeterias are ordering more fruit because it is being eaten. Once they become accustom to the whole local apple they eat more” Gammie said. The school children are responding well to eating the whole apple, although the school intends to add sliced apples as a product line for breakfast.
Plans for next school year are already in place. Brooke plans for a group meeting with the food service directors to discuss procurement plans. They are already having conversations with teachers and planning taste test days for October. They are also building their online e-commerce.
“We are a for-profit business. We feel we are forging the way for the other producers” Gammie concluded. She would like to share her business model as she has the skills to help producers develop their own Farm to School activities.
JH WEILNAU FARM
Brooke Gammie and her husband have already nurtured another producer into the farm to school world. Holly Weilnau met Gammie last February. After she learned what Farm to School was, Holly was so excited that she was literally jumping up and down when she told her husband and business partner about it. They operate JH Weilnau farm near Milan, OH marketing their organic produce through a 50-member Community Supported Agriculture program.
Their eight-acre organic farm once started with a 20- by 20-foot garden. They have a tractor, but need to do a lot of labor by hand, and don’t use any sprays as organic growers. The USDA grant has provided them with the GAP training, and “is helping to make it not financially scary. This will help us provide the students fresh tomatoes that were picked that week and which will provide the total taste difference,” said Weilnau.
So far, they have sold their sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and squash to schools. “I don’t feel as overwhelmed selling to the schools now. If I did not have Brooke to consult with, then I would be lost by adding another business model. This opportunity gets us closer to our dream of both my husband and me working at the farm full-time, instead of having off-farm jobs to supplement our incomes,” Weilnau explained.
“Having a farm helps our own kids to know where food is coming from, and teaches them about hard work and the satisfaction of growing their own food,” she concluded.
Brooke Gammie, Farmer
Quarry Hill Orchards
Cell: (602) 686-7766
Alison Patrick, program manager of Children & Family Health Services
Cuyahoga County Board of Health
Holly Weilnau, Owner/Business Manager
JH Weilnau Farms