Healthy Lunches
12:28 pm
Wed April 24, 2013

Locally Grown Food And School Cafeterias

A recent report by the Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development recommends wider distribution of products from Connecticut’s farms. That includes getting more Connecticut-grown food into school cafeterias.

But schools have been trying to do that for nearly a decade and haven’t gotten too far.

Lunchroom server: "Did you want meat sauce or plain sauce?" "Meat sauce please."

Students at John Winthrop Middle School in Deep River – part of Regional District 4 – are grabbing squares of lasagna as fast as the cafeteria staff can serve them. The kids have no clue that food service director Thomas Peterlik has gone out of his way to use local ricotta cheese or made the meat sauce from unprocessed hamburger spiked with fresh vegetables.

Peterlik is a 10-year veteran of Yale University’s famously local food-serving dining service. But in the two-and-a-half years since he came to region four, he’s faced a frustrating reality.

Peterlik: "Right now what would be available local is apples and butternut squash."

The school year and the growing season don’t match. Getting local food that is available to a school is challenging and typically costs more than the fruit and vegetable program run by the Department of Defense that many districts use.

Directors like Peterlik have found they’re on their own trying to figure out how to get and pay for local food, and for Peterlik that means less time being the Austrian-trained chef that he is, and a lot more time raising money.

JES: "You’re a trained chef. You’re out there being a development director and a fundraiser these days. What’s wrong with this picture?"

Peterlik: "Unfortunately, healthy food costs much more money."

He got a grant to put salad bars in all the schools. And he’s forging partnerships with local food businesses to supply items like fresh made pizza dough.

But money isn’t the only challenge. To help with the seasonal conflict, the state department of agriculture has just awarded a grant to the Norwich schools for a pilot project this summer when farm output is high and the schools aren’t used.

Jacobs: "So we decided that we would set up a processing kitchen."

Food Service director Roberta Jacobs:

Jacobs: "We would take as much as we could, process a lot of it during the summertime and freeze it, and then we would have it for use during the school year."

Agriculture commissioner Steven Reviczky said this addresses one of many hurdles.

Reviczky: "Some of them are governmental, and some of them are related to aggregation light processing and distribution. And trying to get all of the points to line up has been a challenge."

And one of those points is the farms themselves. Selling to schools at wholesale rates isn’t always  top choice. Many farms don’t have the time to deliver and schools don’t have the ability to pickup.

Mary Beth Draghi of Littel Acres in Glastonbury said she’d be happy to grow what schools need – but they have to ask ahead of time.

Draghi: "You’re supporting your local community, you’re supporting your local farmer, you’re supporting the health of the children in the schools so it doesn’t get any more passionate than that."

Other suggestions are putting a non-profit in charge of a farm-to-school program, financial incentives to buy pricier local products, and collaborations among school districts as well as farmers.

But until then, Chef Peterlik’s school kitchens are packed with California produce through the Department of Defense program, not the nearby farmers.

Peterlik: "The guy down the road behind the high school has a big field with apples – Scott’s orchards. Right now I don’t have the money to purchase it because I’m participating in the DOD program. So if I don’t buy the apples through them, I need to come up with money out of my budget to buy apples."

He says what he like to do is buy all the farm’s apples and peaches in season, maybe as soon as next fall.

For WNPR, I’m Jan Ellen Spiegel.