Farm Bill Profile: Farm to School in Hartford

Editor’s note: Hartford Public Schools in Hartford, Connecticut was awarded a 2017 USDA Farm to School grantto incorporate higher volumes of local food into the school menu. The grant will allow the district to install new processing equipment to establish an enhanced "central production kitchen" in Hartford's Journalism & Media Academy. This kitchen will process, package, and distribute local foods to a network of eighteen schools while increasing the flavor and variety of school meals. Hartford schools will also expand the district's partnership with FoodCorps to increase nutrition promotion and food education in both the classroom and cafeteria. We wanted to learn more about this important project and the crucial support of farmers, FoodCorps, community partners, and the USDA that made it possible. Thanks to Lonnie Burt and Dawn Crayco for the interview!

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it?

My name is Lonnie Burt and I am the Senior Director for Hartford Public Schools Food & Child Nutrition Services.  I am a Registered Dietitian who has worked in the field of Child Nutrition for 33 years. I started in Hartford in 2004 with a vision for increasing menu options and the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. My team and I began by focusing on menu and recipe development, training for staff, and securing processing equipment to provide options in schools without production capabilities.

Can you tell us a little more about Connecticut farmers and the Hartford Public Schools? What communities make up the city and state?

Connecticut farmers are outstanding and we love them here in Hartford. They are hard-working and dedicated people. Hartford is an urban city located in the center of the state. Connecticut consists a diverse mix of rural, urban, and suburban communities with a long history of agriculture.

Hartford Food & Child Nutrition Services participates in all the USDA School Meal Programs including the School Breakfast and Lunch, At-Risk Supper, After School Snack, Summer Meals, and the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Programs. During the school year, on average, we serve approximately 32,000 meals a day ensuring our students have access to healthy foods throughout the day.

Walk us through the backstory of this initiative. How did the community and schools determine this was the right step?

For our team this farm to school project is all about getting local food products, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, on our school meal menus. We believe students are more willing to try and eat fruits and vegetables when they come from a local farm. Accessible, local, fresh foods for our students is important to us and Hartford families.

When we set out to focus on working with more local farmers we knew it would require innovative procurement strategies in order to incorporate higher volumes of local food. The challenge of procuring locally for us is about distribution. Farmers cannot get to all 47 of our schools. We needed to come up with a strategy to process and distribute food that would come in from local farms. We applied for a USDA Farm to School implementation grant to establish an enhanced “central production kitchen” in Hartford’s Journalism & Media Academy (JMA). The JMA central production kitchen will utilize an overwrap machine with the capacity to bag and seal bulk, processed foods (such as local diced potatoes) and individual portion packs (such as local carrot coins), and a blast chiller which will flash-freeze local fruits and vegetables when available over the summer months to be stored and used over the course of the year (such as blanched local zucchini).

Education is a big part of this initiative as well. When students know about healthy food, where it comes from, and are engaged in hands-on learning opportunities, they are more likely to change eating behaviors for the long term. This grant allowed us to enhance our partnership with FoodCorps by placing three FoodCorps AmeriCorps Service Members in six schools to teach and expose students to healthy foods in the classroom, cafeteria, and school gardens. Educating students about the food on our menu and encouraging their selection in the cafeteria is an important part of our farm to school efforts.

What kind of impact has this had or will it have?

Hands on learning about healthy food has a strong impact on attitudes and behaviors. A recent FoodCorps study with Tisch Food Center at Teachers College, Columbia University showed students in FoodCorps school with more hands-on learning are eating triple the amount of fruits and vegetables as students who see less of that hands-on learning. With the student learning opportunities provided by our Hartford FoodCorps service members and the additional local menu offerings, we expect to see an increase in consumption and an overall positive impact on health and wellness for our students.

A central production kitchen at JMA allows HPS to purchase higher volumes of local, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and centrally process them in bulk or in individual-sized, pre-portioned packs. We anticipate increasing our local food purchases by about 15%, bringing our total local food purchases to 25-30% of our total food budget.  Through experimentation and feasibility studies, we expect the number of successfully incorporated menu items will proliferate beyond the scope of the two-year grant period.

What did you learn from this process? If you had to do it over again, or you were giving advice to someone who wanted to replicate it, what would you say?

This is the advice I would give: envision the end goal and your desired outcomes before deciding on your activities and timelines. If you are new to local sourcing for school meals, I would suggest starting small. Pick one farmer or one item and go from there. It is a learning process that requires planning, persistence, and dedication to meet both the nutritional and procurement requirements of the USDA.  Remember that you are not alone. Network and learn from others doing innovative things in other districts and areas of the country.

Farm to School is advanced, in part, through the Farm Bill. Does your organization have any stake in the upcoming Farm Bill or other federal and state policies? If so, what are the issues that you’re concerned about or want to see action on?

The USDA Farm to School Grant enabled us to address a key challenge in increasing our local purchasing, something that would not have been possible without additional funding and the support of others working on farm to school. We hope to see additional opportunities for more farm to school programming and a continued commitment to farm to school from USDA in the next Farm Bill.   

How can folks find out more about this or support your work?

You can learn more about Hartford Food & Child Nutrition Services by visiting our website at www.hartfordschools.org.

 

Take Action:

About the Farm to School program: Initiated in 2010 through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the USDA Farm to School Grant Program was established with mandatory funding of $5 million each year. The program increases the use of and improves access to local foods in schools as well as supporting school gardening programs. Demand for the program is currently more than five times higher than available funding.

Support Farm to School: Follow the National Farm to School Network for updates on how to support Farm to School programming.