IOWA CITY — Each day, the Iowa City Community School District serves more than 8,000 lunches. When the district wants those lunches to include locally grown cherry tomatoes, for example, it needs 346 pints for a single day’s order.
The sheer amount of produce needed to feed the town’s children illustrates both the challenge and the market potential of increasing the amount of local food in school lunches.
That’s where Iowa’s Farm to School program comes in. Since the state government passed legislation establishing the program in 2007, 30 Farm to School chapters have formed across Iowa with the goal of linking schools with farmers.
Many other districts don’t have a chapter but work with the Farm to School program throughout the year for events such as the Big Apple Crunch. Cedar Rapids participated in 2015, serving 825 local apples on Oct. 22, paired with activities and related curriculum to mark National Farm to School Day.
The benefits range from providing high-quality food to education and helping the local economy, said Iowa City Community School District Nutrition Services Director Alison Demory.
“I grew up on a farm. I think it’s very important that students learn and know where their food comes from,” she said.
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School lunch guidelines passed in 2011 require students take a fruit or vegetable with each meal. Demory said that’s an easier sell with fresh, local produce.
“We were able to get a lot of local watermelon and cantaloupe last year. It’s just so beautiful and delicious. The kids see that, and it’s so appetizing,” she said. “Our responsibility is to put out good fruits and vegetables so kids want to take them.”
This school year, the district so far has purchased 290 pounds of zucchini, 980 pounds of sweet corn, 165 bushels of apples, more than 1,000 pints of cherry tomatoes, 440 pounds of sweet potatoes and 144 cucumbers.
All those vegetables and apples only represent one local food item served once or twice a week, primarily in the first weeks of the semester when food is in season.
Part of the challenge in serving more than that is a gap between demand and infrastructure. Food for Iowa City’s school lunches starts at a central warehouse before being redistributed to five production kitchens, which then supply the district’s 26 schools. For liability and food safety reasons, each production kitchen must source every order from a single location.
So those cherry tomatoes can’t come from 20 different farms, and they need to come packaged in a way that is easy to redistribute to each production kitchen.
Farmers also need to meet the district’s checklist of food safety standards and stay competitively priced. Field to Family takes on the task of finding the farmers and working with them to meet the district’s requirements.
“We’re lucky we are able to partner with Field to Family,” Demory said. “Honestly I don’t know that we would have time to go out and source all of that.”
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Planning and planting
Though Iowa is covered with farms, most are dedicated to industrial-scale crops such as corn or soybeans. For small farms focused on a diverse array of vegetables, 346 pints of tomatoes or even the 40 to 50 pints needed for a single production kitchen, are a tall order. To plant to meet the need, farmers require months of advance notice.
“It has a learning curve,” Michelle Kenyon, Field to Family’s program director and Farm to School chapter coordinator. “There are times when we’re only able to fill a third or two-thirds of the order from the school district.”
Tammy Stotts, Farm to School coordinator for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, tries to make it easier for farmers to plan for the school market. In partnership with the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service, the department has started collecting local-produce purchase information from Iowa schools, to be published monthly.
The idea is to both show schools what other districts are purchasing and to show farmers what schools are looking for, Stotts said.
Between August and December, the reported local food purchases added up to more than $118,000 in sales of everything from frozen strawberries to yogurt to chicken breasts to kale.
The department also offers a database of growers to facilitate communication between farmers and schools, along with offering other support such as food-grade boxes for farmers to deliver produce.
“We’re just trying to raise awareness and make connections,” Stotts said.