Despite increasing demand, finding and buying local food can still be a hassle. When feeding hundreds or thousands of school children, convenience is key. Due to cost, quantity and transportation, it can prove easier to source out-of-season apples from across the country than to source freshly picked apples from the orchard down the road! Food hubs that operate on a direct-to-consumer business model can mitigate some of the hassle of sourcing local foods, even for school meal programs. Headwater Food Hub in Rochester, New York provides fresh produce from 35 local farms directly to local businesses including local private and public K-12 school meal programs.
Headwater started in 2009 with fewer than 10 farmers supplying produce and goods directly to consumers. As of 2013, the hub has a wholesale branch that aggregates and markets the produce and goods provided by 35 farmers, makes the deliveries, and handles payment details. Essentially, the hub relieves farmers of the burden of marketing and transporting their produce and brings quantities of ready–to-prepare, fresh produce directly to school kitchens.
Phil Bianchi, wholesale director of Headwater, says the goal is to provide a local, sustainable food system for residents and businesses that supports small and medium scale farms. What better way to introduce the benefits of eating local to a community than to start with the youth!
The food hub’s partnership with school meal programs began with two small private schools and now reaches several private schools and public districts including Wayne Central School District, North Rose-Wolcott Central School District, and Lyons Central School District.
One name that Bianchi refers to again and again when talking about the successes of the food hub’s partnership with schools is Nique Wilson, food service director of Wayne Central School District (K-12) in Wayne County, New York. Wilson has sourced locally-grown foods including apples, brussel-sprouts, cauliflower, and corn from Headwater. To introduce the produce, Wilson organizes a yearly Harvest Month program that allows students to see, touch, and taste fresh local vegetables and learn how and where they were grown. “It’s all about the story when it comes to farm to school,” says Bianchi. “‘Telling a story’ is essential to community involvement and support for farm to school initiatives. The more the school food service directors and managers that are involved in telling the story, the more the community rallies.”
While this farm to school model has proven successful, there are some setbacks and challenges that Bianchi sees as opportunities for improvement and expansion of the food hub, including the higher cost of local produce, the limited seasonality of fresh foods, school staff’s unfamiliarity with preparing fresh produce, and lack of equipment for preparation and storage. One example of an improvement that he hopes to make is to work with a local processor to provide schools with frozen produce to help meet the high demand that schools have for vegetables and fruits year-round.
Through facing challenges head-on and spreading the story of local food, Bianchi and Headwater aim to expand and strengthen farm to school partnerships in forthcoming school years. Bianchi and Wilson’s work also exemplifies a larger trend of great importance: providing the groundwork for healthy eating dialogues that extend throughout the community from the farmers and marketers, to the school faculty, staff and students, to families and everywhere in between.
Katherine Baildon, Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, Cornell University
Alisha Gaines, PhD, Cornell University Division of Nutritional Sciences