By Katie Navarra
The Forestville Central School District has gone “all in” with their farm-to-school initiative. Depending on the season students can have several local items a day. During the colder winter months there is at least one New York item. This could be a slice of NYS cheese on their sandwich or hydroponically grown lettuce blended into their side salad. Eager to maximize the agricultural bounty within their community the school purchased its first farm-raised hog for the 2020 – 2021 school year.
Buying a whole hog brought a new learning curve of deciding which cuts were best for school use, finding a USDA certified butcher, and navigating payment. Farmers and processing plants aren’t set up to operate on a purchase order system with delayed payments. Buying the hog from a teacher in the district streamlined the process.
“That personal connection has made us fearless,” said Superintendent Renee Garrett said. “We’ve been able to break through many of the barriers to getting local meats.”
Buying a whole hog was possible in part through their participation in the New York State Farm to School Institute. The year-long educational program is led by Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) and aids schools across the state in their farm to school efforts.
“Being able to talk with other districts and receiving support from the Institute has been a huge help,” said Nick Weith, the school’s food service director. “We have been able to bounce ideas off each other and hear perspectives I may not have thought about.”
Forestville launched its farm-to-school program during the 2018 -2019 school year with a New York State Farm to School grant. Over two years they received a total of $181,055 and used the monies to buy freezers and equipment to handle local farm products.
“We started off our participation by getting the equipment necessary to run an effective farm-to-school program,” said Garrett.
Adding local farm-raised meat has allowed the district to maximize their school lunch reimbursement through the New York Farm to School Incentive, bringing it close to 50% and going above and beyond the 30% New York food product purchasing threshold required for the $0.25 per meal reimbursement. Smarter decisions about how the school uses New York produced farm products has been critical in achieving this threshold, according to Weith. Learn more about this program in AFT’s Growing Resilience report.
“We’re not able to count New York State items towards breakfast and we were doing a lot of that last year with blueberries, apples, and yogurt in the morning,” he said. “It wasn’t that we were wasting money because students were getting good food but we had to think about the sustainability of our program. By shifting these items to our lunch program has made all the difference.”
Garrett says the key to the program’s success is Weith’s culinary background. Not only does the trained chef bring contagious energy for trying new recipes, but he also excels at budgeting and has cut costs at the same time the school has increased its local purchases.
“When you have someone with a culinary background they can suggest what if we roast the vegetables this way and added these spices rather than going with the recipes we’ve always used,” she said. “We will be in the black or pretty close to it this year while we have been cutting costs in a good way.”
Weith is proactive about identifying buying opportunities in addition to working with farmers in the immediate community. He drives 45 minutes one-way to an Amish auction to buy seconds—produce with minor blemishes—to stock up. He estimates purchasing 1,650 pounds of tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash at auction at an average price of $0.33 per pound. The produce was frozen for use later in the school year.
“People think farm products are more expensive, but they’re not,” Weith said. “When I was looking for melons they were $9 from a regional distributor compared to $5 at the farm. We even got yellow doll watermelons for $1.”
Ramping up local purchasing hasn’t been as hard as people would think, according to Garrett. The extra work is rewarded through healthier, local products available in the cafeterias.
“A lot of what has made us successful is that we say yes,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to give it a try.”