As COVID Reduces School Demand, Farmers in Southeast Connecticut Learn to Adjust


In a normal year, Rick Whittle, owner of Whittle’s Willow Spring Farm in Mystic, would be transporting his apples, yellow squash, watermelon and string beans to school cafeterias around Groton. 

Since March, however, distance learning has created a significant reduction in the number of children receiving breakfasts and lunches at school. This has impacted not only the school districts, which depend on the meal program to fund their cafeterias, but also the local farmers, like Whittle, who sell their produce to the schools.  

Despite the shutdown in the spring, Whittle said he grew his crops assuming that things would be back to normal by the fall. They were not. 

“It cost me a fortune,” he said. 

Whittle’s farm in late October (Courtesy of Rick Whittle)

Whittle normally supplies 30-40 boxes of produce per week to 10 schools in the Groton district. The sales bring in thousands of dollars. This year, they brought in nothing.

In addition to the produce, Whittle uses his connections with the school districts to host field trips. He said they normally host 50 to 60 kids each day during the six-week season, at $3 per child. This year, all the trips were cancelled. 

Altogether, Whittle estimates he lost about $20,000 between field trips and a loss of produce sales to the schools. 

“It was horrible,” he said. 

Farm to School

Ninety two school districts in Connecticut have relationships with local growers, according to UConn’s Put Local on Your Tray project, which connects school districts with local growers,

Shannon Raider-Ginsburg, farmer liaison for the project, said that while every school with established relationships with growers kept those relationships, the pandemic largely prevented new districts from taking advantage of the project. And those districts, like Groton, that already had partnered with growers have reported a significant decrease in the amount of produce they are ordering.

Whittle’s produce ready to ship to schools last year (Courtesy of Rik Whittle)

Ernie Koschmieder, food service director at Groton Public Schools, said that Groton cafeterias normally serve 3,800 to 4,000 meals each day, but now the number has dropped to between 1,200 and 1,500. And Koschmieder said that his orders to farmers like Whittle — a source of apples for the district — have plummeted dramatically.

The drop in demand for meals, said Raider-Ginsberg, hurts everyone. It hurts the farmers that aren’t selling the products, and it hurts the schools, who aren’t being reimbursed for the meals. As a result, farmers are seeking other markets, and schools are trying to pinch every penny.

At risk is the quality of the meals being offered to the children.

“The pandemic has really shown us … how critical schools are to feeding children,” said Raider-Ginsburg.    

Low Demand, High Costs

The state decided this year to waive income requirements for the school meal program, allowing all students to receive school meals for free. Through a United States Department of Agriculture grant, Connecticut reimburses school districts for every meal sold — $1.89 for breakfasts and $3.51 for lunches. 

But the universal free meals have not gotten the reception that advocates for the meal program would have hoped. Erica Biagetti, current president of the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut (SNACT), said that food service directors at schools across the state were reporting a 50 to 75 percent decline in students participating in the meal programs at the start of the year.

In addition to the drop in meals sold, the pandemic created unexpected supply costs. Gloves, for example, which used to cost between $18 and $22 a box, now cost $90 to $98 per case because of heightened demand. Cafeterias have also had to invest in disposable paper products and packaging materials so that students can eat lunch in their classrooms. 

The extra costs have significantly strained a program that even in the best of times can struggle to break even. Koschmieder said he thought it would be helpful for the state to increase the reimbursement rates. He suggested $2.25 for breakfasts and $4.25 for lunches.

Biagetti, who is the director of dining services at Guilford Public Schools, said they have also had to make changes in the type of food they purchase in order to make it more portable for the kids. Guilford schools used to buy locally sourced whole apples and oranges through their distributor. Now, they opt for apple slices in plastic bags, which may or may not be local. 

Looking for New Markets

All of these changes have affected farmers like Whittle and Rob Schacht, owner of Hunts Brook Farm in Quaker Hill.

Schacht, who supplies lettuce to cafeterias in Groton, Montville, New London and Waterford public schools, as well as to Connecticut College in New London, previously sold as many as 22 cases of lettuce a week, at $50 a case, he’s now selling between four and 10 cases a week, a loss of hundreds of dollars.

And the schools have been unpredictable.

Sometimes Schacht learns on the night before a delivery that a school district has shifted to remote learning. 

Raider-Ginsburg said the pandemic has caused many local farmers to shift away from selling to restaurants and schools, which can be unpredictable, in favor of selling directly to consumers. She said that CSAs have become enormously popular with the pandemic.

Schacht tells much the same story.

So many people have expressed interest in their CSA program this year that they haven’t been able to accommodate everyone. This was helped along, he said, when Provider Farm in Salem, one of the largest CSAs in Connecticut, announced that they were closing and moving to Massachusetts. 

“The day they announced it on Instagram, we had 10 new requests in our inbox,” said Schacht.

Schacht said he believes that after people witnessed the grocery store shelves empty in March, they became concerned about having access to food. He said he’s not worried that demand will decrease after a vaccine is created.

Rob Schacht of Hunts Brook farm, planting garlic (Courtesy of Rob Schacht)

“People who participate in CSAs get used to it. It’s almost a lifestyle choice,” he said. 

Farm stands have also been a large source of revenue. Whittle said that demand for his produce exploded as people shied away from visiting large grocery stores in favor of open-air markets.  

Schacht, too, has opted to sell products at his farm rather than bringing them to farmer’s markets. The state regulations, he said, which required hand sanitizing stations, crowd control and someone to police mask-wearing, made the market impossible to sustain. Selling at his farm was a lot less work, and it also allowed him to save on transportation costs.

“In the end, it actually ended up being positive,” he said. “It might be a permanent shift for us.” 

Schacht, however, said he still sees the schools as a missed opportunity, and Whittle said he wants to go back to participating in school meals once the pandemic is under control. He said the schools are a great opportunity to get his farm’s name out into the community. 

School districts meanwhile, are trying to reach out to children in new ways, providing pick-up locations for remote learners, offering home deliveries and allowing families to drive by and pick up meals from the school.

Administrators are urging children and families to take advantage of the free meals. 

“It’s like participatory democracy,” said Raider-Ginsberg. “The more students participate, the better the meals, and that makes it possible to spend extra money to buy local.”

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