ITHACA, N.Y. — Across Tompkins County, school districts have been working to add more fresh, local and regional farm products to their cafeteria menus. Starting in 2019, they’ve had support for these efforts from a new Tompkins County Farm to School program which successfully reached its first-year goals despite the many challenges presented by Covid-19.
A grant from the New York Farm to School program in 2018 enabled Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE-Tompkins) to establish a county-wide Farm to School buying program, and hire Chloe Boutelle to coordinate it. Boutelle made connections between school districts and Headwater Food Hub (the project’s regional food supplier) and worked with the districts to support a series of new “Harvest of the Month” menu items featuring seasonal New York farm products. Posters were displayed on lunch lines to promote each dish and to share facts about the produce being served. At least 12 new “Harvest of the Month” dishes were served in Tompkins County public and charter schools during the program’s first year, giving students a chance to taste in-season vegetables that were new to many of them, including winter squash, cauliflower, kale, root vegetables, several varieties of cabbage, and sweet potatoes.
When COVID-19 surfaced in March 2020, plans to promote spring “Harvest of the Month” dishes were set aside as local school food service operations scrambled to serve remote learners, sending food home on buses and to centralized pick up locations. To ensure that students and their families with food insecurity received fresh produce, Tompkins County Farm to School quickly switched to a “farm-to-home” model in partnership with the school districts, Headwater Food Hub and CCE-Tompkins’ Healthy Food For All (HFFA) subsidized CSA program. A grant from the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, and funds raised by Headwater Food Hub covered the cost of the additional vegetables and fruits. These “Harvest of the Month” boxes contained local produce, Farm to School educational materials, and recipes that would enable families to make the featured produce dishes at home with produce that in some cases was unfamiliar to them.
Farm to School also worked with the Tompkins County Food Task Force (a collaboration of area hunger relief and social service groups) to distribute 760 boxes – including “Harvest of the Month” produce boxes and pantry boxes from Food Bank of the Southern Tier — to families in Tompkins County’s largest district, Ithaca City Schools. Between April and August 2020, 1649 food boxes were delivered to families across the county to supplement the food that was sent home by their local schools.
Boutelle credits school food service staff for keeping this new program going despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic. “It is incredibly hard work feeding our students, and the essential workers in the schools have put in a tremendous effort,” she says. “Farm to School is immensely grateful to the food service staffs, farmers, and the transportation and distribution teams that continue to make these extra efforts to meet the needs of our students under the current circumstances.”
To provide an educational component to go along with the box deliveries, Boutelle partnered with Ithaca Children’s Garden (ICG) in May to send home 150 garden kits to students at Newfield schools, and 80 seed sprouting science kits to students in Trumansburg schools. Although kits originally were planned for Ithaca City School District students, Boutelle worked with ICG to expand the offering to other rural, public school districts using Farm to School funds to produce the additional garden kits. Science kits included seeds that were an in-kind donation from CCE-Tompkins.
Beyond meeting the goals of increasing student consumption and awareness for New York grown produce through “Harvest of the Month” efforts, the Tompkins Farm to School program has provided an income stream for local and regional farmers, with more than $65,000 being spent on vegetables and fruits from more than 50 local and regional farms during this first year.
A third goal of the Tompkins Farm to School program is to help local school districts include at least 30% NY State farm products on their menus. Meeting this procurement benchmark qualifies a school to receive an additional reimbursement of up to 25 cents per meal under the 2018 NYS No Student Goes Hungry Act. With the standard reimbursement at 5.9 cents per meal, these additional funds can improve school meal budgets and increase a district’s long-term ability to spend more on locally produced ingredients. During the first year of the Tompkins County Farm to School program, the Ithaca City and Trumansburg school districts both exceeded this benchmark, and are ranked in the top ten districts in New York State for spending more than 40% of their school meal budgets on New York State produced foods.
In spite of many school-related changes, Harvest of the Month has continued in various forms across Tompkins County during the 2020-21 school year. New York State products featured in the 2020 fall “Harvest of the Month” menus include tomatoes and corn in September, bell peppers and Swiss chard in October, broccoli and cauliflower in November, and winter squash in December. Schools are sending meals home to virtual learners, while also serving cafeteria meals to students on-site. “Harvest of the Month” dishes vary by local school district; students and families are encouraged to check their school’s online menu for specific dishes and when they will be served.
For more information about the Tompkins County Farm to School program, contact Chloe Boutelle, Farm to School Coordinator, at (607) 272-2292 ext. 152 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://ccetompkins.org/farm-to-school, Facebook, or Instagram: @TCfarmtoschool.
Cornell Cooperative Extension is an employer and educator recognized for valuing AA/EEO, Protected Veterans, and Individuals with Disabilities and provides equal program and employment opportunities. For more information, please visit http://ccetompkins.org/ .
–Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County
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