School lunch goes local: WNC districts, farmers connect to freshen up cafeteria offerings

EVERYBODY WINS: Gabriel Noard, left, of Pangaea Plants is pictured with Kim Buckner of the Buncombe County Schools Nutrition Inventory Office. In 2015, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project connected Noard with BCS when his organic watermelons were rejected by a retail grocer for cosmetic reasons. BCS bought the melons and served them to students in all of the system’s cafeterias. Photo courtesy of ASAP

The subject of school lunch often conjures visions of rectangular pizza, miniature milk cartons and soggy veggies from industrial-sized cans. But in recent years, a growing interest in wholesome eating along with policy changes, such as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, have encouraged school districts in Western North Carolina and nationwide to gradually add more farm-fresh local foods to those cafeteria trays.

In addition to providing area children with consistent access to tasty, nutritious meals, this trend’s focus on local has the potential to benefit WNC’s farmers. But fostering connections between schools and farms can be a hard row to hoe.

School nutrition directors can’t just head out to the nearest tailgate market to stock their schools’ kitchens. Strict budgets that depend primarily on reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program, along with logistics and countless other considerations, make accessing local food systems a complex web for schools to navigate. Yet WNC school systems are increasingly rising to meet that challenge.

Making connections

Fortunately, schools don’t have to go it alone. Many area school districts and independent education facilities participate in the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program, which encourages access to North Carolina-grown produce. And bringing it closer to home, many also tap into the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Farm to School program.

ASAP’s initiative, which launched in Haywood County in 2002, was one of the first of its kind in the U.S. Its director, Emily Jackson, notes that the program plays myriad roles: assisting schools with finding and purchasing local foods, providing educational materials and lesson plans, supporting cafeteria staff, facilitating taste tests and cooking activities with students and supporting edible garden efforts.

“Our goal is to make this as easy as possible without us doing it for the schools and teachers, so they’ll have ownership,” says Jackson. The program also works to help farmers expand their business opportunities by directing them to potential partnerships with schools and the distributors who service them.

Jackson mentions Old Fort grower Gabriel Noard of Pangaea Plants,  who had a load of organic watermelons rejected by a retail grocery chain a couple of seasons ago because the produce didn’t meet cosmetic specifications. “So this farmer was either going to have to dispose of these melons or donate them to a food bank,” she recalls.

When ASAP heard about the conundrum, the staff contacted Buncombe County Schools child nutrition director Lisa Payne, who was happy to step in and buy the melons. The farmer didn’t lose money on his crop, and students at all of the system’s more than 40 schools got an organic, locally grown treat in their cafeteria meals.

ASAP pays particular attention to opportunities like that. In general, direct partnerships between schools and farms are not common, Jackson says. Schools are required by their dependence on federal reimbursements to take the lowest bid for the food they procure, but ASAP’s goal is to help growers locate the most profitable options.

“It sometimes makes us a little hesitant to push farmers toward the school market, just because in the Asheville area, they have access to more lucrative markets,” she says

Bridging the GAP

Yet, direct relationships are forming, in spite of that dynamic. Payne points to a new partnership between Brasstown Beef and BCS that brings Brasstown’s antibiotic-free, pastured beef into each of the district’s schools on a regular basis in the form of a special meatloaf lunch.

The effort has been popular with BCS diners, says Payne. “Our students love the concept,” she says. “Steve Whitmire, [owner] of Brasstown Beef, came to A.C. Reynolds High, and the positive response from the students interested in farming was huge.”

But Brasstown is a large operation, Jackson notes. It was already supplying thousands of pounds of ground beef every week to school systems in upstate South Carolina when it rolled out its products in BCS cafeterias this year.

Plus, the farm maintains USDA Good Agricultural Practices certification, a gold standard that many school districts require of their farm partners, but one that can be daunting for small operations to achieve. If Pangaea Plants had not been GAP-certified at the time of Noard’s melon dilemma, his fortuitous partnership with BCS would not have happened.

Although Asheville City Schools nutrition director Janette Broda has been active and successful at putting local foods on the menu in the district’s nine schools, she reckons that GAP certification is one reason ACS currently has no direct relationships with local farmers. Before joining ACS two years ago, she encountered this problem during her tenure as nutrition director at Cherokee Central Schools, which has a strong local food focus.

Many farmers there, she says, decided that because of the GAP requirement, school partnerships were not financially beneficial. “It’s costly. There’s an annual fee,” says Broda. “They have to go through a course and write a plan, and sometimes they’re just not equipped to do that.”

Alison Francis, director of nutrition services for Haywood County Schools, nurtures a few direct farm partnerships, which she’s established with ASAP’s help. But she agrees with Broda that GAP certification — which HCS requires of farm suppliers in addition to $2 million in liability insurance — is a major hurdle to expanding that network of local providers. “There are not very many farmers in Haywood that are GAP-certified,” Francis says. “It’s a lot of extra work and money for them.”

The first farmer Francis worked with directly was Skipper Russell of Seasonal Produce Farm in Canton because he was the first one she found in Haywood County who was GAP-certified. From him she has been able to source lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other mainstay produce.

And this school year, HCS started sourcing apples directly from KT’s Orchard and Apiary in Canton, which got its GAP certification last year. “Usually, when we order apples from a produce supplier, it’s pretty much your Golden Delicious and Red Delicious and sometimes Granny Smith,” says Francis. “But [with KT’s] we were able to get Fuji and Pink Lady and Roma and Gala and all kinds of different apples. So it was kind of neat to let the kids see that there is more than just Red and Golden Delicious.”

And she has been pleasantly surprised that she gets a sweet deal on these local products. “I think with Skipper we were paying half the price for tomatoes that we were paying the regular distributor,” she says. “And I think we were paying a couple of dollars less for apples than we were paying before.”

The middleman

But even districts that are making great strides in forming local farm relationships still have to rely largely on distributors. “ASAP realized a long time ago that there are not many farmers who have the capacity to distribute products to 45 schools like there are in Buncombe County Schools, but these produce companies, that’s what they’re in business to do,” says Jackson. So ASAP works to connect smaller growers with the wholesalers that serve area schools. This ends up serving both the farms and WNC students.

At ACS, Broda has worked with her current distributor, Carolina Produce, to make sure order forms identify products from farms that are within the district’s three-tiered definition of “local” — within Asheville, within a 100-mile radius or within North Carolina. She reports that roughly 8 percent of the produce ACS purchased in the 2016-17 school year was locally grown, and the goal is to increase that as much as possible.

Payne says BCS does not allocate a specific percentage of its $12.5 million annual food budget to local products. But its produce company, Marvin’s Produce, always fills orders with locally grown items based on availability. BCS spent a total of $480,000 on fresh fruits and vegetables last school year.

Mountain Food Products owner Ron Ainspan, a farmer in WNC since the early 1980s, says selling through distributors makes sense for local growers. Although he eschews the bureaucracy involved with bidding for public school contracts, he currently works with a few Asheville-area preschools and colleges, including UNC Asheville.

“We probably buy from 200-250 farmers in a season, so it’s a good outlet for them to come through here,” he says. “I think there’s plenty of opportunity for farmers, particularly with local wholesalers.”

And he supports Francis’ observation that choosing locally grown produce can save schools money. “When we’re in our main season, say in June or July, or even starting next month with local strawberries, pricing is competitive and really shouldn’t be an impediment.”

Opportunities for supplying WNC schools should only continue to grow. Payne says BCS is always looking to ASAP for new ways to partner with area farms.

And Broda reports that the overall goal at ACS is to reduce the amount of ready-to-eat foods and do more from-scratch, batch cooking, which requires more produce. And as she seeks bids from potential suppliers this year, she is being specific about her focus on local sourcing.

She also hopes to eventually bring in volunteers from FoodCorps of North Carolina to help expand local-food programming, an approach she says costs money, but was extremely successful for Cherokee Central Schools. “It was very exciting, and we want it here, but it’s baby steps,” she says.


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