A school lunch menu in Old Saybrook offers farm eggs from Branford, fresh-picked local greens and broccoli rabe, and yogurt from Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm in Old Lyme.
“Our menu is studded with a lot of locally-grown and locally-made products including vegetables, but also meat such as Hummel Hot dogs from New Haven,” said Maureen Nuzzo, the food service director for Old Saybrook Public Schools. “About 10 to 15% of our food comes from local sources, and on any given day we have something on the menu.”
Nuzzo said that ten years ago when she became food service director, her goal was to make local and fresh food a focus. To that end, she spends many weekdays and weekends searching farmers markets for produce, meeting farmers and vendors and transporting their products to the school. She visits each farm often herself, picking up produce and meat.
“I’m so excited when I’m able to bring something new in,” Nuzzo said. “This year we have corn, kidney beans, tomatoes, squash and local greens through December.”
In 2013, four years after Nuzzo began bringing farm products into Old Saybrook schools, the United States Department of Agriculture Farm to School Grant Program began supporting trailblazers like Old Saybrook schools. In 2019 the program awarded more than $9 million to schools across the United States.
“We’ve been able to do this because of the commitment, the personal commitment and support, of the district and the willingness of the kitchen staff,” Nuzzo said. “For those who are afraid to do it or concerned about cost, for us, maybe because of our size, the cost has not been a big factor. The value especially because it gets more students engaged and actually eating the food makes it beneficial.”
Eighty one school districts across Connecticut participate in the Farm to School program through UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources Extension’s Put Local on Your Tray program. The state program began in 2015 with the involvement of 30 districts.
“We are almost at the halfway point of district involvement,” said Molly Deegan, the project coordinator for the Connecticut Farm to School Action plan at UConn Extension. “It’s exciting.”
In 2016 Deegan began a collaboration between UConn Extension, the state Department of Education, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the School Nutrition Association, Food Corps, the Dairy Council and Common Ground to guide school districts over hurdles preventing schools from providing farm to school programming. In 2018, the collaboration received a $225,000 Kendall Foundation grant to help fund their efforts.
Currently, the collaborative is working to determine what elements of farm to school – food served, education, school gardens or connections to larger community – are most important and have the most chance of success based on the interests of stakeholders and resources available.
“All the people and agencies involved make it very complicated,” Deegan said. “There are people in food service, food distributors, educators, government programs. We are looking at the systems map and determining where we can press to make a difference.”
Old Saybrook, which benefits from the passionate involvement of Nuzzo, makes the process of adding local produce appear almost straight forward, but Deegan explained that changing a district’s supply chain and methods for procurement can actually be the most difficult aspect of farm to school.
In the process, school districts with in-house food service programs like Old Saybrook, can be at an advantage over schools with outside contractors.
“There is often a price increase and distributors affiliated with outsourced food service programs can make it difficult because of contracts,” Deegan said.
From how we eat to how we educate
According to Susan Quincy, an environmental education specialist in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, coordinator for Project Food, Land and People, a 501(c)3 national nonprofit, as well as the co-founder of Connecticut Green LEAF, environmental magnet schools and private schools in the state are leading in their commitment to nutrition and environmental education, but she believes that public schools can benefit from integrating these ideas into basic coursework including math instruction.
“Our removal from agriculture makes us less aware of what impacts our choices to eat certain foods,” said Quincy. “We provide professional development to teachers on the subject so they can bring the material into the classroom.”
Planning a garden, said Quincy, provides a real world opportunity to apply lessons of math and science. It helps children not only learn more about nutrition and farming, but understand the importance of their core subjects.
“We also look at what can be done to assist schools in reducing food waste and if there are ways to increase time for students to access the outdoors,” Quincy said.
This idea of access to the outdoors extends beyond recess in elementary schools, to outdoor seating for lunch as well as school gardening programs.
But just as providing students with local food faces major barriers of cost, other initiatives such as reducing food waste are restricted by state regulations and restrictions around food safety.
“There have been a lot of efforts for people to increase recycling and ban Styrofoam. But if you ban Styrofoam some schools don’t have dishwashers to wash reusable trays or they don’t have the staff to wash them,” Quincy said. “So, schools will use compost-ware, but it still ends up going in the trash.”
Quincy said that the many ideas that might seem beneficial actually provide little if any real benefit.
“We don’t want to green wash,” she said. “That’s where you think you’re helping, but you’re actually maintaining the same amount.”
The UConn Extension collaborative has conducted 32 interviews and four focus groups with food service providers and educators over the past year to identify barriers and areas of interest. This November the collaborative will finish the planning process and decide on a direction and goal for Farm to School in Connecticut.