What It Takes

 

Kathleen Gonzalez

 

A hayride might sound like an odd way to get local produce on the plates of schoolchildren. However, it has become very popular and effective! Last October, food service directors from Taos Municipal Schools, Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) and Los Lunas Schools climbed onto bales of hay and rode around Pat Montoya’s Family Orchard in Velarde, north of Española.

Food service directors are responsible for ordering the food and creating the menus for all the school meals served in their districts. The tour was held to introduce them to local apples and the farmers who grow them, such as Montoya, Anthony Wagner of Wagner Farms in Corrales, Fred Martinez of Fred and Ruby Martinez Orchards near Dixon, and Danny Farrar of Rancho La Jolla in Velarde.

Statewide, school food service directors run the biggest “restaurants” in their communities—serving up to 328,000 breakfasts, lunches and snacks, daily. For them, ordering from national distributors is easy. One phone call gets you what you want—if you don’t mind food picked long ago and shipped from very far away. More of these directors are becoming committed to purchasing from local farmers, which just isn’t so simple… yet.

It is important to see the farm and meet the farmers, to put a face to the product. Picking the apples and tasting them… that is what sells them,” said Mary Ann McCann from Taos Schools, between bites of apple from the Martinez Orchard. Shauna Woodworth, director of Farm to Table’s Farm to Cafeteria program, agrees that these USDA-funded tours she coordinates have proven to be a great way to build the relationships necessary for food service directors to feel confident in ordering produce from NM farmers. “It is essential for them to have an opportunity to talk directly with the farmers, away from their busy offices and ringing phones,” she said.

In 2012, the farmers who work with Woodworth and the Farm to Cafeteria program sold over 220,000 pounds of produce to over 50 school districts across NM, serving 234,067 children. This is an increase from 60,000 pounds sold in 2011. It’s a win-win for NM; our children get healthy, fresh food in their school meals, and our farming communities have an injection of much-needed income. “There is a huge potential to increase sales,” said Woodworth. The farmers are willing to grow more if the schools are willing to buy.”

Taking food service directors on farm tours is not new. Today’s directors and farmers are benefiting from the foundational “meet-your-farmer” tours that Le Adams of Farm to Table and Craig Mapel of NM Department of Agriculture established in 2000… long before the local food movement even had a name. The earlier tours were successful and several schools began purchasing local food back then; however, it became obvious that there were problems.

Most farmers were not familiar with the sizing and packing specifications the schools required, nor the bidding and invoicing process. And most school food service directors were not used to buying directly from farmers, which requires extra phone calls, paperwork, and knowing what crops might be available throughout the season. The farmers were used to packing their produce for the farmers’ market. Cucumbers could be big, small or odd-shaped. Boxes were recycled, of different sizes and packed at different weights. The food service directors were used to calling their national distributor and ordering 600 pounds of eight-inch cucumbers packed in boxes that weighed 40 pounds each. Adams and Mapel spent most of their time helping farmers and food service directors learn about each other’s operations and figure out ordering and delivering challenges, like the cucumber dilemma.

As the Farm to Cafeteria program developed, there needed to be someone who could take on these challenges full-time. Two years ago it became Woodworth’s job to do just that—to keep developing relations and systems between farmers and buyers and to continue to expand the program and the tours.

When conducting farm tours, Woodworth has also been focusing on “food safety,” a hot topic in the news. Food service directors get to see the farm and learn from the farmer how he or she handles the food to ensure it is safe, and how they keep it as fresh and clean as possible, all the way from the farm to the kitchen’s back door. Several food-safety farm tours around the state have been scheduled in 2013 for farmers to learn from farmers how to ensure the quality and safety of their produce, especially if they are interested in selling to local schools.

The growth of the Farm to Cafeteria program has been exciting. That growth is due, in part, to the leadership of food service directors McCann, Angela Haney of Los Lunas Schools, Mary Swift and her procurement manager Juan Saiz of APS, Judi Jaquez and her Farm to School coordinator Betsy Torres of Santa Fe Public Schools. With their example and the help of the NM School Nutrition Association (NMSNA), the word is getting out to food service directors across the state about how to order and prepare fresh, local food.

And, thanks to Laura Perea and Mary Oleske of the NM Human Services Department (HSD), local produce is now on the same trucks that deliver USDA Donated Foods. This means any public school in the state can order apples from northern NM, for example, and the apples will be delivered by HSD along with the monthly USDA order. This service has expanded the number of school districts purchasing local food from 11 last year to at least 50 this year.

It is difficult to gauge the exact amount of local food being served in NM schools. There are farmers in Farmington and other areas of the state who have been selling to their local school districts for years. There is a burgeoning Farm to School program in Las Cruces, where Rebecca Wiggins, co-director of La Semilla Food Center is working with farmers and food service directors in the southern part of the state to get local food into nearby school districts. And in the Albuquerque area similar organizations have been supporting the Farm to School connection—making sales of over $65,000 to APS, the largest school district in the state.

This month, both Woodworth in the north and Wiggins in the south are setting up pilot programs where participating farmers will meet with food service directors to plan for the year. These farmers will have a better idea of what and how much to plant, and the directors will know what produce to expect and approximately when. “Forecasting is key to our operation,” says McCann. “If we know what’s available we can forecast our costs and buy more efficiently. It’s difficult to find out that something like squash is available next week. If it is not already on your menu, you just can’t buy it.”

If everything goes as planned, farmers will develop their own relationships with food service directors and, like Anthony Wagner, continue to sell produce to the schools on their own. Farm to Table will then tap experienced farmers like Wagner, Fred Martinez and Danny Farrar to be the teachers, to show the next wave of farmers how to grow and sell to the schools and other institutional markets that Woodworth and Farm to Table are working on opening up to local farmers—such as senior centers, prisons, hospitals and other cafeterias. “I get just as excited selling one box of fresh-picked apples to Wagon Mound as I do selling 350 boxes to a larger district,” Woodworth says. “The best part of this work is giving children the entirely new experience of tasting fresh local produce.”

To build on the success of the program, Farm to Table and the NM Food and Agriculture Policy Council, with the support of NMSNA, are working on securing $1.4 million from the state to enable NM food service directors to buy more local food (see article on page XX). Farmer Anthony Wagner recently testified in favor of the bill. He told legislators, “This year I grew more food because Shauna told me she could sell it. And she did. If the schools are willing to buy more, I have even more land I can put in production.”

It starts with a hayride.

For more information, contact Farm to Table: 505.473.1004, info@farmtotable.org or visit www.farmtotablenm.org

 

Kathleen Gonzalez is a former Mora County farmer and rancher. She is now communications coordinator at Farm to Table. kathleen@farmtotablenm.org