The Bloomington Food Policy Council had the pleasure of attending one afternoon of the USDA’s Culinary Skills for A+ School Meals program led by Catharine Powers which hosted roughly 20 staff from various MCCSC school kitchens. The week-long course includes cooking demonstrations, meal preparation, discussions and lectures that debunk the challenges of bringing local farm products into daily school cafeteria meals. In the few hours the Bloomington Food Policy Council was present, there was an apparent forward and powerful momentum being build through this enthusiastic community.
While food preparation was on the menu for the week, so was group-building discussions, focusing on forming connection between students and their food. Cafeteria staff shared some already did “Vegetable of the Month” to generate student interest in new foods. “They won’t take it unless you tell them how good it is, but once they do, they love it!” a woman mentioned in relation to garlic, rosemary vegetables. One woman recalled her own local food experience as a child; her family eating nothing but strawberry shortcake, even for dinner, after harvesting the berries together.
To ushered in the idea of cooking local meats, Chef Michael McGreal demonstrated how to properly dry rub a pork shoulder for quick, and easy pulled pork. He shared how a chef in Colorado already prepares 2,000lbs of local pulled pork that is served to over 15,000 students- all torn-apart by hand. A participant chimed in that they had successfully be preparing pulled pork at her school and shredding it in a mixer made it a breeze. Chef McGreal concluded his demonstration by reflecting on the mornings cooking and the teamwork, organization and stress management skills that were crucial to bring into their own kitchens, noting, “You will master it by Friday!”.
Ms. Powers shared USDA data that 77% of Farm to School Schools serve local food in their cafeteria, and many schools are already using local dairy without knowing. She also encouraged schools to think beyond “just fruit and vegetables”, noting options like many local fisheries and how the group would be cooking with local grits the next day.
When asked what the benefits of local food are, generating a stronger local economy and food community were at the top of the list. Many of the staff were interested in having a relationship with the producer might allow for better pricing, requests for certain crops to be grown, or a direct contact for quality control concerns. In terms of what local foods could do for bettering the health of students, examples like a school in Pennsylvania saw five-fold increase in apple consumption when they switched to apples from a local orchard. Even larger suppliers such as Piazza have been working to supply schools and restaurants with local goods including a description of the farm where the product was sourced.
School gardens were brought up as a means to generate student interest, provide food education, and generate cheap produce for school. Carmel, Indiana has a poster-child example of turning the lot the old school sat on into a garden with community plots and a strong compost system.
Ms. Powers reminds the group that bringing farm fresh food to schools is a process and encourages the group to “take one step”.