Monday, February 18, 2013

Finicky Food Fondness and Fabulous (local) Frozen Foods

The good news keeps coming for the Fayetteville Public Schools’ (FPS) Seed to Student program! For the last few months we have been working diligently to find a local sweet potato product with a competitive price and good story. I am happy to announce that we are partnering with the local processor Bright Harvest to switch all sweet potato fries to local ones throughout the district, that is, at all middle and junior high schools and the city’s high school. Bright Harvest sources the majority of their sweet potatoes from Central Arkansas (Matthews Ridgeview Farms), some from Mississippi and Louisiana, and as a very last resort, California.  The price is right too, they are cheaper then the product we were using. It’s a win-win for everyone. A local processor and farmers get the school district’s business and we get a lower-cost, local product that happens to be of higher quality as well. The kitchen managers told me they “cook up” and “hold shape” better than the old product, and taste better. The staff says the kids like the new product too. Just today, another order was made for three more pallets (270 cases) of Bright Harvest sweet potato fries. The district has gone through one pallet in the last three weeks. That is 2,700 pounds of local sweet potato fries! I thought to myself, “well, that was easy! I guess I don’t need to do taste testing and promotion of the new product after all. It sounds like these fries are selling themselves”. Yeah, that was a nice thought.

Photo: Bright Harvest 
I stopped by the high school last week to take some photos of the new fries and get a bit more feedback from kitchen staff. The staff was very quick to say that the product was of higher quality than the previous one but every time sweet potato fries are on the menu the participation rate, or number of students buying that meal option, drops noticeably. Not many high schoolers like sweet potato fries, or anything sweet potato for that matter, they said. The kitchen manager asked for suggestions to better promote the fries to increase participation and generate revenue for the school nutrition program. I noticed the fries were closed inside plastic clamshells with a roll and chicken nuggets. The meal was one color, brown, and the condensation had fogged up the clear plastic making it difficult to see the entrĂ©e inside. The clamshell would likely make the crispy fries soggy if they sat there long enough. There was a lack of eye-catching promotion to make the students aware of the new product. I took a few notes and headed back to the office to think about how to improve the situation. The other kitchen managers had not mentioned this and clamshells are only used at the high school so maybe the concern was specific to that cafeteria.  

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Really? Sweet potato fries? Aren’t you serving with FoodCorps? Aren’t you a healthy and local food advocate?! Yes, I agree there are healthier vegetable options than sweet potato fries but this is why these fries are still a win for us healthy food advocates, locavores and the students alike. For one, sweet potato fries are already on the menu. It’s easier to improve what you have before moving on to new menu items. Getting new items on the menu requires quite a bit of planning and time. Secondly, sweet potato fries are a healthier alternative to white potato fries and fit into the new USDA meal pattern many food service departments are frantically trying to learn and follow. You could say local sweet potato fries are a gateway food for getting more local and healthy foods to the menu. In addition, sweet potato fries are a frozen product so they can be ordered in large quantities, stored and used as needed. Buying in bulk is cost saving and eliminates the extra time need to coordinate ordering and delivery of fresh product for each school on a weekly basis. Also, establishing a relationship with FPS was a big win for Bright Harvest. Other districts will see that the local product has been successful and be more likely to purchase the product for their schools, especially if it’s cheaper. When our regional distributors see the demand for local product is high, they will be encouraged to work with Bright Harvest and other local entities so more schools can easily purchase and offer local foods to their students.

I learned quite a bit from this project so far and there is still more to do. It is important to observe (in person!) how new products are prepared and offered to students and get kitchen staff feedback to make sure the product is successful in the cafeteria. If there is room for improvement, adapt accordingly. We will be doing some promotion of the new product with some sort of colorful “it’s local” signage and taste testing. We want students to give sweet potato fries another chance. We might also experiment with how the fries are offered; keeping in mind they must be part of a reimbursable meal.

It’s tricky business considering quality, cost, federal regulations and fickle teenage food preferences when figuring out how to get local, nutritious food on the school menu, but it is oh so worth the patience and hard work.

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by Ally Mrachek 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Gardening and Coordinated School Health in Yellville, AR

Starting in January, we began to look to the future of the garden program here at Yellville-Summit. We had a meeting with different stakeholders, teachers, parents, administrators, community members, and students. This was an opportunity to discuss the possible scenarios for the garden and how we could make them a reality into the future. That discussion got me thinking about how the garden came to be, and how it will evolve into the future. On that note, I’ve asked Valerie Davenport, the Yellville-Summit Coordinated School Health Coordinator, to write about her experience bringing the Delta Garden Study to the school and her feelings on the program as both a parent and a staff member:
I do not have a formal background in the field of public health, however I do have a passion for many things health related.  I briefly considered entering the medical field when many of my co-workers (while working as a teaching assistant at U of A in Fayetteville) began taking the MCAT! My education background includes 13 years in the classroom as a science instructor as well as a couple of years as an education technician for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and a lifetime as a child of 2 devoted educators.  I was employed at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year as Coordinated School Health Coordinator for Yellville-Summit School District. Early in the school year I heard about the Delta Garden Study at a training meeting for CSH coordinators, but didn’t really think we would be considered a school in the Delta region.  When I learned that Marshall was in the program, I checked it out on the web and began the application process.  
My vision for the garden was to see students outside and learning in a hands-on setting.  My two youngest children are fortunate to be involved in the program this year.  They have both enjoyed having much of their learning taking place out in the garden. Here’s a quote from one of my daughter’s class assignments “If you haven’t worked in a garden at all then you have missed out big time.” My son enjoys the time outside of the confines of the classroom and has encouraged me to try a couple of the garden recipes at home because he loved the samples!
I am extremely excited about the future of the garden at Yellville-Summit, I would love to see the garden in use by all of our educators as a learning tool!  So many concepts from the classroom could be reinforced by experiencing them in the “field”. I also believe that working in the garden and learning in a real life setting could really be a positive turning point in the lives of many of our students.  In addition, I would love to see produce from the garden in our school cafeteria, just imagine the pride the students would feel if they have taken part in providing food for their peers!
Valerie is just one of the many excited, passionate folks we have working on keeping our garden a vital, sustainable program for our community. Without her, I certainly wouldn’t be here to share my experiences. In addition to spearheading the application process to bring the Delta Garden Study to Yellville-Summit, she tirelessly supports the garden with her grant writing expertise, volunteering her and her family’s Saturdays, and keeping up with all our local garden newspaper features. 

by Sara Fulton-Koerbling