In Missouri, a K-12/university partnership will bring processed local produce to district lunchrooms.
Revamping a meal program or adding components like local sourcing and healthful menu options are daunting challenges for many school districts. Resources are scarce, expertise is lacking and time is at a premium.
At the same time, issues like nutrition and sustainability have become trendy topics for college academic departments looking to develop new programs. But what such programs often need are real-world “labs” where theory can be put into practice.
Sounds like this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship…or at least a mutually beneficial partnership. That's what some universities and nearby school districts have found as they've begun collaborative efforts in these areas.
One of the most innovative such programs germinated from a $248,000 Healthy Eating with Local Produce (HELP) grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health. The money has allowed researchers at St. Louis University to help develop a healthy eating pilot program for the nearby Maplewood/Richmond Heights school district that brings locally grown produce in usable processed form to district cafeterias.
The goal is to find a way to get more locally grown, sustainable fruits and vegetables and increased nutrition into school lunch programs, says Mildred Mattfield-Beman, PhD, RD, LD, chair and professor of the Dept. of Nutrition & Dietetics at SLU. Her department — which incorporates both a curricular thread in sustainable food systems and a culinary RD program — has been working on the project with a local entity called the Healthy Foods Initiative (HFI).
Faculty, staff and both dietetic and culinary students from SLU have lent their efforts and expertise to the healthy eating project with MRH Schools.
Mattfield-Beman says MRH was picked as the pilot district for the program because of its manageable size (it only has three buildings, including an early childhood center, an elementary school and a middle/high school), because of a prior relationship with HFI on a gardens-to-tables program, and because it was able to readily provide the researchers the menu and procurement data they needed to launch the project.
“We ran a study reviewing their menus and identified the ingredients they could purchase locally,” Mattfield-Beman explains. “We compared what it would cost and what it would take to do the purchasing locally.”
While prices were competitive, “the problem that always comes up is processing and distribution,” she says.
To help solve that problem, the HELP grant is funding the conversion of an unused institutional kitchen on the SLU Medical Center campus into a processing facility. With an existing loading dock, easy access to major highways, walk-in freezers and refrigerators and open work areas, it was an ideal space for the purpose once the proper equipment could be installed.
The kitchen will also serve as a culinary training facility for both district foodservice staff and for vocational education students, who may also use the facility to run a business processing local crops as part of their training. It is set to begin operations this fall.
Meanwhile, a nearby farmer-owned retail grocery store called Sappington Farmers Market agreed to become the entity representing local farmers in selling to the schools. (The district rewrote its bid specs to introduce regional preference into produce purchasing.)
With its logistical resources, Sappington will collect and deliver local farmers' produce to the processing facility on the SLU Medical Center campus, where it can be turned into usable ingredients for the schools. It will then deliver the finished product to the school sites. Storage of finished product will be divided among the processing facility and the individual schools.
Among the products expected to be available this fall, when the initiative goes into operation, are…
- 1,400 lbs. of potatoes (representing four different varieties) processed into mashed potatoes, potato wedges and baked potatoes;
- 1,000 lbs. of carrots processed into carrot sticks;
- 2,500 lbs. of tomatoes (seven different varieties) processed into marinara, tomato sauce and other specialty sauces;
- 2,200 lbs. of apples (six different varieties) processed into sauce (and possibly dehydrated apple slices).
For the upcoming school year, HFI identified ingredients in existing menu items that could be purchased locally in order to secure the grant. Other than “tweaking” the choices — to take advantage of the different kinds of potatoes available from local farmers, for example — and upgrading the ingredients on the salad bars, the existing menus will remain intact. However, in future years, changes are planned to take better advantage of what is available locally.
“We're going to try to make the seasonality work for us,” Mattfield-Beman says. “This July, we'll begin menu planning for the 2010-11 school year and then we'll meet with farmers next January on planting schedules to minimize storage needs and maximize processing. A lot of this is simply working out the logistics.”
To prepare for the menu changes, HFI recently conducted a recipes-from-home contest for district children in which they submitted favorite meals from home (they had to be limited to eight ingredients including at least one main one that was Missouri-grown). The candidates were evaluated by representatives from Les Dames d'Escoffier, who pared the 50 submissions down to five.
Les Dames chefs then worked with students to prepare the recipes in volume. They were then taste-tested by district students. The top three will be on the menu this fall at all three school sites. The winners were a strawberry-spinach salad, a sweet potato casserole and sweet potato fries (baked in olive oil).
Mattfield-Beman says the program's biggest obstacle is the federal commodity program. “It's hard to compete with free,” she says. Nevertheless, she is optimistic that the initiative can establish a sustained, mutually beneficial connection between local growers and the schools “Our goal is to support the farmers, to let them know there's a solid support there so that more of them may be interested in establishing relationships with us.”