Dreaming a New Dream: Key Components for Cafeteria Farm to School Programs
A carrot seed planted by hands permanently stained from soil, grown with care by the sun, water, air, and farmer. The carrot harvested by those same loam-covered hands, to be washed, packaged, and sold to the eater. The child crunching the sweet, crisp flavors of fall in their lunch. In this bite, the consumer takes in the whole life of the carrot — its connection to the gifts of nature, the innate nourishment of the earth, and the love of the person who raised the food.
Alternatively, in eating processed food compiled from laboratory-created ingredients through the work of machines, we consume a separation from the source of life while wiring brain pathways and habits to choose unhealthy food.
We use the conscious part of our brain, the cerebral cortex, when making the decision to eat an apple or a bag of potato chips. Once conditioned, however, the response to select the apple or the potato chip bag comes from the subconscious or unaware part of our brain. The dominant pattern established then dictates the foods we tend to eat.
In other words, if we feed our kids processed meals high in sugar and low in nutrition, these foods become their normal through automatic, unthinking selection. However, in feeding our children fresh, whole foods, we imprint their palate for beneficial, energizing foods. I once interviewed a third grader who explained the importance of feeding kids healthy food by saying, “If kids grow up eating unhealthy food they will feed their kids unhealthy food.” The short-term pain for changing school food provides gains for all the generations to come.
Not only are we raising a generation of unhealthy food decision-makers by serving low quality food, we waste finite resources in the process. Agriculture depletes significant amounts of ground and surface water in the United States, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the Nation’s consumptive water use1, an activity that draws water from a source within a basin and returns only a portion or none of the withdrawn water to the basin.
Furthermore, the agriculture industry, primarily driven by energy intensive fertilizers and heavy machinery, used nearly 800 trillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy in 2012, or about as much primary energy as the entire state of Utah2. Livestock operations consume direct energy for ventilation systems, refrigeration, lighting, heating, watering, motors, and waste handling, whereas crop operations use energy to till, plant, control weeds, harvest, irrigate, and dry crops. Indirect energy consumption includes the use of fuel and feedstock in the manufacturing of agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides.
Teaching kids to make informed food choices and taking care of the planet converge in the cafeteria. With the goal of healthy people living on a healthy planet we head towards a food system that works for everyone and everything. Starting with cooking food from scratch and simultaneously establishing a farm-to-school program, we support learning to value food and time spent eating together which then helps us see ourselves as part of the world with a connection to our families, the community and the earth. We learn to care for the land and its inhabitants. We experience resiliency, the cycle of life, and hope — all necessary components for making our way in the world.
I had owned a catering business in Chicago for thirteen years when I first developed a passion for local and organic foods. My youngest daughter, born with a weak immune system, ultimately found relief from her illnesses at eight years of age through a diet centered on clean, unprocessed foods. This discovery followed many hours and days of our lives in the hospital including several near death experiences, as well as time spent unsuccessfully with nearly every doctor in the greater Chicago area.
Seeing the world anew through the eyes of a dad with a child healed by food, I founded the Organic School Project, a non-profit organization with the mission to grow school gardens, integrate food system education into the classroom, and feed kids healthy, scratch-cooked meals. The first hurdle I crossed in laying out the route to scratch cooking in schools was the cost of a school lunch — less than three dollars per child. In my catering business, if the client wanted expensive food, I would pass along the costs. With the need for better food in schools and the fixed dollar amount per child, I began to study kitchen efficiencies.
In order to pay the true cost of food from local farmers laboring the land, I needed to find the money and time within the existing system, and began using my catering business as a learning laboratory. I questioned every single aspect of my business, often to the great frustration of my staff. I asked why tomatoes needed to go on salads year round with their high out-of-season prices, why the buffet still needed to be full when the last person went through the line, and what could be learned by separately measuring every stream of waste.
After twenty-three years of cultivating my culinary and business management skills, fourteen additional years of in-depth studies of kitchen efficiencies, and countless projects transforming school food across North America, a roadmap to scratch-cook school food unfolded and continues to evolve.
From the aerial view, the two most effective components for transforming school food include involvement and genuine listening among the stakeholder groups and seeing the solutions within the existing system.
In most schools, a high level administrator determines the menu. This person spends all their time buried in compliance paper work and rarely, if ever, leaves their office. Instead of talking to kids about what they want to eat, the menu is selected from the mind of an adult imagining the meals students prefer. Instead of choosing a menu based on the seasons and the products available from local farms, the food service companies drive the menu through their limited offerings. And instead of planning a menu in collaboration with the area farmers, the volume needed comes from distant lands, even in agriculturally rich locations.
Seeking input from every stakeholder gains their investment and contributes to the success of the program, and as a result, participation increases, money is saved, local food procurement becomes possible, fresh food increases while processed food decreases, and plate waste goes down.
I worked with a public school grades K-12 to implement a scratch-cooking program in January 2017 adding no additional cafeteria staff. Their participation increase arose from talking to stakeholders figuring out how to make delicious food. In conversing with students and cafeteria staff prior to starting this scratch-cooking program, I discovered both groups struggled with the pizza served for lunch. The cooks were discouraged because they worked hard for three days making pizza and most of it ended up in the trash. The students shared that the pizza was too hard and did not taste good.
The pizza had been made by hand to a certain extent, but the dough was cooked too long, they used canned sauce, and pre-grated cheese that tasted like sawdust. Both the students and the cooks wanted pizza on the menu. The cooks sampled and revised pizza four different times until consensus came. In the end, the cooks made pizza with their own homemade sauce, fresh grated higher-quality cheese, and local produce toppings. They did so for less cost and working as a team they could start making the pizza at 9:00 a.m. on the day of service instead of three days in advance. The desire on the part of both stakeholder groups to work towards a mutually agreeable pizza stemmed from the listening that occurred while discussing what works and doesnʻt work about the current menu.
It is commonly believed that a scratch cooking food program costs more, needs additional staff, and that there is not enough local farm food to supply the schools. During the spring 2017 semester, this particular school saved $31,000 compared to the same period in 2016. In addition to increased participation and cost savings, the new scratch-cooking program increased the amount of fresh foods and increased the amount of local food while decreasing plate waste. Through genuine listening the opening emerged to begin finding solutions.
The solutions are found within the existing system. It is commonly assumed that if we look outside ourselves, our school, our community we can find what we need. We think the new kitchen, the new recipe, the new chef, the new farmer, or some other single silver bullet will deliver the key to better food. If this were the case, kids across the country would already be eating nutritious and delicious meals cooked from scratch daily.
Establishing a baseline of quantitative data comprising an analysis of the profit and loss for a semester to a year, percentage of fresh to processed foods, purchasing records, waste in several different categories from the cafeteria and kitchen, and participation numbers offers factual insight into the current opportunities for growth. Review of food, supply, labor costs, strengthen the baseline picture, as does a review of recipes to identify whether they are standardized with yields and costs.
For example, one can measure and thus demonstrate the amount of milk waste identified during the process of analyzing quantitative data collected from measuring the various waste streams. The baseline number brings to light the unnecessary purchases and resulting wasted costs. Thus, monies are found to purchase better ingredients.
The existing staff had ideas of how to improve operations, but often need the incentive to share their thoughts or support to try new processes. Upon first attempt at turning my catering business into a zero waste kitchen, I struggled to get my employees to separate the waste into the different recycling streams. They were busy and didnʻt have room for one more task. However, after a couple days of moving the waste cans outside forcing the cooks to think differently, I brought the waste cans back inside and assigned the lead dishwasher with the responsibility of ensuring waste was properly sorted for recycling. With the dishwasher pointing out and uncovering any mistakes, everyone quickly began to properly sort all waste materials for recycling.
Achieving zero waste required no additional staff and no additional hours for the existing cooks. We simply utilized the existing team in a new way to accomplish a change in procedure.
At the K-12 school mentioned above, an administrator removed homemade cinnamon rolls from the menu and replaced them with processed pastries. The change was made as a result of the high sugar content of the scratch cooked rolls due to large amounts of icing being used. When the decision was made to implement a fully scratch cooked menu, the baker identified the solution to make the cinnamon rolls with less icing to meet the nutritional guidelines required by the United States Department of Agriculture.
At the end of the dream, you can walk into any school in the country and observe kids joyfully eating nutritious and delicious fresh food grown on local farms. The students will know the farmer and what it takes to grow produce and grains from a seed, and raise an animal from birth. You will witness children working and learning in the school garden and in the school cafeteria. You will view project-based curriculum in the classroom that connects with the cafeteria menu and the school garden.
From this experience, students grow healthy and strong in mind, body and spirit. They connect with life, develop leadership skills, and engage in the processes for achieving success. They learn to value and contribute to their own needs and those of their community and the greater world.
Implementing a farm to school program requires commitment and change at every level of the school. But in honestly asking ourselves if the world is working for everyone and everything, we recall all the people without enough food, clean water, or medicine. We remember the diminishing natural resources. And we consider those people who live disrespected, mistreated, or lacking safety. Once we see what is not working, we must ask ourselves how we are improving the conditions around us.
Through the intention to invest in the best possible outcome for our children, we find the solutions to implementing a scratch-cooking program while sourcing local food, meeting compliance requirements, staying within budget, making kids and parents happy, and employing hard working staff. At the same time, we instill hope, teach ourselves how to overcome obstacles, and inch closer to a world that works for everyone and everything.