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 entrée 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