Bringing local food to schools: a hard nut to crack

Deep River — The cafeteria at John Winthrop Middle School is a picture of healthy fresh food. On this pasta Wednesday, the special is homemade lasagna with tomato or a vegetable-spiked meat sauce. Gorgeous green salads with precisely cut grape tomatoes and cucumbers are lined up for quick grabbing during blitzing-fast lunch periods.

There are fresh strawberries, cantaloupe, pears and apples. And there’s a full salad bar and sandwich station that includes turkey roasted in the gleaming kitchen a few feet away.But there’s one thing almost none of this food is: local.

Right now what would be available local is apples and butternut squash,” said Thomas Peterlik, an Austrian-trained chef who took over as food service director for Regional School District 4 — Deep River, Essex and Chester — two-and-a-half years ago.

That Peterlik — a 10-year veteran of Yale’s famously locally sourced dining operation — has yet to substantially crack that barrier for a Connecticut public school system speaks to just how challenging the concept of farm-to-school is here.

The school year and growing season don’t coincide other than a brief flirtation with the end of peach, pear and tomato season. After that, there’s only storage crops like apples that pretty much run out by February.

There’s no distribution system or central delivery and pickup points, which means food service directors have to fetch food themselves if they’re not dealing with one of the few farms willing to deliver. And local products tend to be significantly more expensive than what districts typically get.

Most commonly used, with the help of subsidies from the federal government, is the Department of Defense-run Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. It touts locally grown produce, but in reality most of it comes from far out of state, like the big box of spring mix greens in Peterlik’s kitchen marked “Salinas, CA.”

“The guy down the road behind the high school has a big field with apples — Scott’s Orchards. Right now I don’t have the money to purchase it,” Peterlik said. “I would like to walk up to a farm and say, ‘I’ll buy all your apples or all your peaches in season.'”

To eventually do that, Peterlik now spends less time in the kitchen, and more time fundraising.

He got a federal grant to put salad bars in all five Region 4 schools. He’s forging partnerships with local food businesses, including a pizza restaurant that now supplies fresh whole grain dough and sauce every other week for pizza Mondays.

He’s beginning to work with a local bakery for breads that meet the new school lunch health standards. And on a few occasions, he’s shared beef with local restaurateur and friend Jonathan Rapp, who takes the prime cuts for his River Tavern in Chester while Peterlik takes the ground meat for school.

In the past year, he’s also raised about $20,000, now stashed in a special bank account to eventually leverage into grants. About $9,000 from a fundraising picnic last spring he called Get Fresh 4 School. Another $10,000 came as a beneficiary of Rapp’s fundraising Dinners at the Farm. And about $1,000 has come so far from River Tavern, which turns over its $10 kids menu take every Sunday.

Peterlik is also looking for sponsors to underwrite the cost difference between local food he wants like theFarmer’s Cow milk and what he can otherwise get. “Unfortunately,” he said. “Healthy food costs much more money.”

He and others grumble — and have for years — that the state Department of Agriculture’s minimal help connecting schools with farms hasn’t meant much more than local apples by the barrelful. For more than that, it’s each food service director for him or herself.

“I don’t see it’s very logical for say 200 food service directors to figure it out, every single person by himself,” Peterlik said. “What I would like to see is on a state level using grant money for creating a position for a liaison.”

Such help may be close. The No. 1 recommendation from the Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development in its first report released earlier this month is wider distribution of products from the state’s farms. Embedded in that recommendation, which includes all institutional food, is the idea of getting more Connecticut food into school cafeterias.

A multipronged solution

Even state Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky, who also chairs the council, admitted: “Trying to get all of the points to line up has been a challenge.”

Reviczky and others see a multipronged solution. It includes light processing of food in season for use during the school year; aggregation among farms and schools to centralize delivery and pickup; and revision of the state’s distribution contract for institutions to include several companies instead of only one, the way it is now — a particularly frustrating situation to many who see it thwarting economic growth in agriculture.

“There’s got to be a way we can recognize as a state, as a matter of public policy, that investing our money in Connecticut-grown and locally grown has many more benefits to the state’s economy than just the price point,” Reviczky said. “First and foremost, jobs; second of all is the protection of our working landscape.”

The department just awarded a $50,000 Farm Viability Grant to Norwich schools to use its largely empty kitchens during the summer when produce is pouring out of farms to process it for the school year. Beans, corn and other vegetables could be par-cooked and frozen, fruit could be canned or frozen and tomatoes would become sauces and salsas. There’s plenty of storage space — something many schools lack. The money would also go toward a van to pick up the produce.

“From all of my experiences in past years dealing with famers and them calling me up and saying, ‘Can you take this, we have extra?’ and we can’t, I think this is going to be a very good solution,” said Roberta Jacobs, the food service director. “It’s a shame to be leaving all this stuff at the farm when we could be using it.”

Her non-union employees also make this more doable than places like Region 4, where union contracts make summertime labor cost prohibitive.

Tim Cipriano, a pioneer in the state on farm-to-public school, brought local food to Bloomfield schools nearly a decade ago and then to New Haven. Ever the optimist, he admitted progress has been slow.

“I would stop at farms along the way to Bloomfield and build relationships on my own,” he said. “I remember driving to one specific farm in Canton and walking out through a field in a shirt, tie and dress shoes. That’s what it took.”

Moving to a new position this year in Guilford, he has to start all over again. “We’re stuck on that plateau,” he said.

His suggestion: “No. 1 — hand the program over to a nonprofit. That’s the top 10 things.”

There are models for that. In Minnesota, a state with even worse seasonal disjunction than here, the agriculture and health departments partnered with the nonprofit Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy and the University of Minnesota Extension Service to figure out collaborations and provide training to bring local food into schools year round.

About two-thirds of schools now are getting local foods. “It wasn’t going to be all about fruits and vegetables,” said Mary Anderson, culinary director for Wayzata Public Schools and the former president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association. Schools get cheese, honey, maple syrup, local beef hotdogs, turkey and even hydroponic greens in winter. “People had to get real inventive.”

But there’s still a great deal of skepticism in Connecticut. Many, like Stephen Porter, owner of M & M Produce, a middleman distributor, see the season mismatch as insurmountable.

“It’s just not conceivable,” he said of local produce during the school year. “And the kids don’t eat butternut squash.”

He and others also pointed out that while extending the growing season through growing indoors is more common, it’s expensive and winter daylight is minimal. Not all farmers are even interested in selling to schools at lower wholesale rates.

“The quantity is so small and schools so spread out that it’s cost prohibitive for farms to deliver to them,” said Shelly Oechsler of Botticello Farms in Manchester, who is on the Governor’s Council and helped craft the recommendation. “There has to be some sort of incentive to buy in-state products.”

Herb Holden of Broad Brook Beef, also on the Council, was equally unconvinced. “It’s going to require someone from the private sector. It can’t be run by the Department of Agriculture,” he said. “At the end of the day everybody’s battling the budget and that has to be part of the discussion.”

Mary Beth Draghi of Littel Acres in Glastonbury sells tomatoes to one school in her area, but has had a hard time getting large-scale takers for her fruit and other produce in season. For the sheer commitment to end childhood obesity, she’d love to be selling to schools.

“It’s all about the school contacting the farmer,” she said. “‘We want to put broccoli with cheese sauce on the menu. Can you grow enough broccoli to do that?’ There are farmers who would jump to do that.”

Back at Winthrop Middle School, Superintendent Ruth Levy sits in the cafeteria, momentarily quiet between lunch periods, lauding the educational and local economic benefits of bringing local food into school. She is less concerned that chef Peterlik is out scrounging for money rather than tied to his kitchen.

“I hired a chef to be able to run the best cafeteria in the state of Connecticut, which he does,” she said. But she was adamant that the state step up.

“We don’t have all of the cooperation that would be even more helpful from the state level,” she said. “We would love to see some financial incentives that would help us to make this a constant in our district.

“It would help to have somebody who had the oversight at the state that could help us to be able to make some of these initiatives actually come to fruition.”