WHEN PUPILS AT FOUR schools in Manchester and two schools in Nashua eat their school meals this fall, they won’t be eating cardboard pizza shipped from a national warehouse. They will eat pizza with a sauce that has been processed locally, with tomatoes sourced from their own classrooms.
While many children have little idea where their food comes from, a University of New Hampshire initiative is changing all that with a program that completes the food culture loop, helping both school children and local farmers.
Stacey Purslow, coordinator of Farm to School, said the program, based at the University of New Hampshire at Durham, has been around since 2004 and has three main components:
• School gardens.
• Link school food services to local, farm-produced food.
• Farm-to-school curriculum.
They sponsor the New Hampshire Harvest of the Month program and the New Hampshire Native Harvest Calendar.
It’s difficult to quantify the number of schools owned by FTS, Purslow said. Some schools have gardens, while others do not but benefit from produce from local farmers.
Jameson Small, Fresh Start program coordinator with the Refugee Success Organization, explained that the Farm to School program benefits a wide range of groups. He oversees 25 farmers from Nepal, Sudan, Kenya and Burkina Faso, with the majority coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. The farmers, most of whom are women, worked the land in their home countries but found themselves living in apartments in America and unable to farm or garden. Fresh Start puts them back on the ground, in leased or purchased land, and they can support their families with the products they know best.
The Fresh Start program has four components, according to Small:
• A model of CSA, community supported agriculture;
• An ephemeral market focused on working-class neighborhoods;
• A “Healthy Corners” program intended to supply convenience stores with fresh products;
• And more recently, From Farm to School.
Small said the agency has applied “multiple times” for a USDA grant to fund Farm to School, and is now in year one of a $100,000 grant.
The idea for pizza began to germinate when Small realized that his farmers were producing “tons and tons” of tomatoes. It was, he said, a “super surplus”. Two years ago, his organization began freezing the surplus. With the help of Genuine Local, a shared commercial kitchen in Laconia, they made batches of tomato sauce from their farmers’ surplus. “Within days we had the sauce in jars, with labels and even barcodes,” he said.
The agency relied on this concept for its Farm To School effort. They have partnered with all six schools and two community gardens, one in Manchester and one in Nashua.
The seeds start in the classroom
In the spring, Small said, students from each school help plant the tomato seedlings and let them sprout in class until they’re about a foot tall. The young plants are then transported to a community greenhouse, currently the Manchester Grows facility, from which 2,000 plants are ‘grown’ to gardeners at Fresh Start Farms and 3,000 to members of the two community gardens.
In the fall, the tomatoes will be frozen and taken to Genuine Local, now in Meredith, where they will be made into 4,000 gallons of pizza sauce. Later in the fall, students from all six schools will dine on pizzas with a sauce made from tomatoes they have grown. And, Little hopes, the process will begin again.
Small is happy that the program also received a grant to hire a videographer and have the entire cycle filmed.
Last year, the program produced a smaller batch of pizza sauce and criticized it. “We wanted to make it thicker, maybe change the packaging,” he said.
And he plans to make more use of the production of refugee farmers. “We can get fresh basil for the sauce,” he said. “If we grow the ingredients for a salad, it’s almost a complete meal.”
Many benefits of FTS
Purslow said this is one of the many benefits of FTS. “Children learn good eating habits, and with the school gardens, they learn how to grow things,” she said. “It gives them a sense of ‘food sovereignty’. Supporting farmers also keeps them viable and secures New Hampshire’s rural landscape.
There is also an environmental benefit and the benefit of keeping the money in the community, she added.
School menus are prepared a month in advance, which requires planning by food service directors, Purslow said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, you, we need more broccoli.'”
School dietitians can connect to the Food Hub network, including a website where they can place orders, she said. She also organizes “matchmaking events” between food service staff and farmers, she said. While some food service managers are developing their own relationships with producers, that has all but collapsed during COVID, according to Purslow.
Activities in the classroom and in the canteen mobilize the children. For example, she said, in the fall there could be a “taste test” of New Hampshire apples, with kids voting for their favorites. The program also brings varieties of produce that children may not be familiar with, such as heirloom tomatoes.
Working for change at all levels
Purslow applauds the pizza project, noting that it is a good collaboration between farmers, classrooms, community partners and the commercial kitchen.
But she is also aware that there is still work to be done. “Now there’s fast food everywhere and ready meals,” she observed. “Families in financial difficulty fall back on cheap food. That’s part of the reason the school meals program exists.
The new standards call for protein at every meal, and at least one fruit and one vegetable on the platter. “You won’t see fries anymore,” she said. “It will be roast potatoes, sweet potatoes.” There are sodium limits, saturated fat limits and a need for dairy products, all a balancing act between $1 and $1.30 per meal.
Purslow said during the last legislative session a bill was introduced to encourage schools to buy more local food. The bill did not pass, but she hopes to see a revamped version in the next legislative session.
Recently, as part of a relief effort to address supply chain issues, the USDA provided each state with grants to purchase local food for schools. New Hampshire’s share is $570,000 and Purslow will help write the grant application. She’s pretty sure that if granted, she can find positive and effective ways to spend the money.
She looks at issues of equity and how to provide the best food for low-income and minority students. She would like to see the program expand to provide more culturally appropriate foods for the children of new Americans, she said.
Small also has a vision for more kids in Granite State to learn where their food comes from and get there. “We only work with 3,000 children now,” he said. “But it’s a way to get a foot in the door.”