It always amazes me how the ChicopeeFRESH team figures out creative ways to work local products into the school meals. But they do it all the time! Not just produce, but also meat, eggs, dairy, fish, and value-added products. So what does it take to get from "the pitch" to "the sale?" It varies from product to product, but here are a few things we look for:
Quality of the Product: We sample every local product we buy. It's one of the tastiest perks of the job! If the quality seems right, we pick a school and offer samples to students in the cafeteria for a day. Then we talk to the kids. Kids are usually not shy about their opinion! If it passes the test, there's a good chance we'll add it to the menu.
Quantity: Not all local vendors are set up to handle the volume of food that an entire school district needs. Chicopee Schools serve 8,000 kids a day! That's a lotta tomatoes! So when we think about working with a new vendor we look through our invoices and calculate the volume we'll need in a week or a month or even a year. For example, Chicopee schools can go through 750 pizzas in a single day! Not all farms and food businesses are able (or wanting) to supply that much food at one time.
Delivery/Logistics: A local farm or vendor may have an excellent product but if they have no way to bring the product over to us, then we have a problem. Our best case scenario is that the vendor is equipped with their own delivery vehicle(s) and drops off the local product at each of our 15 schools. For example, Joe Czajkowski Farms doe this. Luckily, we don't have to rule out a vendor that can't do this. Chicopee School Food Service also owns one delivery truck and employs a full-time driver, so we can work around it if the vendor can't swing all 15 stops. In this case we work it out that the local vendor delivers to one school and our driver brings the products around to all the other schools. Our local seafood vendor, North Coast, does this.
Food Safety: At the Chicopee schools, we're feeding kids and we also serve lunch to the elderly. Their safety is of the utmost importance - above everything else! We ask all new vendors, including local ones, about the safety precautions they take. Are they licensed through state and local authorities? With the FDA and USDA? Do they have a HACCP plan? Do they have an insurance policy? We always follow the "better safe than sorry" rule of thumb.
Seasonality: This goes without saying, but school menus need to be thoughtfully designed to incorporate local products as they're seasonally available. September and October are excellent months for local produce in New England because almost everything that can be grown here is available! June's kind of fun because we've got strawberries, asparagus, and peas available. But over the winter months, produce dwindles to mostly just root veggies like onions, potatoes, and butternut squash. We gotta get creative with how we menu these items so students don't get sick of them! For example, we've been trying out these recipes with the kids: Cider-Glazed Butternut Squash, Chili-Roasted Baked Sweet Potato Fries, and Baked Butternut Squash Noodles with Parmesan Cheese. Don't they sound yummy? Some local products are available all year long though, like meat, dairy, eggs, and fish. Maybe that's why MA Farm to School's Harvest of the Month for May is seafood! Local egg frittata is a hit with the kids, and the "Tacos with Arnold's Farm Fresh Beef" are out of this world!
Price: Local food has a stigma of always being way too expensive to work into school meals. Luckily, that's not always the case! Fresh, local produce is usually priced comparably with conventionally grown produce. And, if you think about the cost of the whole plate instead of just the center-of-the-plate menu item cost, you can play around with the whole meal so that local products are offset with less expensive products. For this, Commodity products (subsidized, US-made/grown food products the government issues to school districts) can be your best friend! For example, we're menuing a from-scratch chicken noodle soup with local, certified humane chicken. We offset the cost of the chicken by menuing a grilled cheese sandwich to go with it using Commodity ingredients.
These are the highlights! With each new vendor we figure out new ways to get their products on the menu. If you're a local food vendor and you're interested in selling to Chicopee Schools, give us a call! We'll see what we can do.
The ChicopeeFRESH team is a group of creative individuals who are working to feed Chicopee students healthy, local and FRESH foods each day.