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Local kale for the K–12 crowd? Lessons in fresh food service

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When last year the head chef at Granville Schools came to business manager Chuck Dilbone with a problem — that students were taking too many vegetables from its unlimited fresh fruit and vegetable bar — he had to laugh.

“That’s not a problem!” he responded. Three years into the Columbus-area school’s local food initiative, its cafeteria regularly serves up healthy meals prepared on-site using raw, organic ingredients, about 40 percent of which are sourced from within 125 miles of the school (16 percent come from less than 25 miles away).

“Poor district or affluent district, I think each one could do this,” Dilbone said to a group of Yellow Springs parents, teachers and administrators and local farmers at a talk last week organized by the Yellow Springs High School Parent Teacher Organization.

While many schools prepare lunch by thawing and heating processed canned and frozen food, Granville is bucking the trend. Instead of soggy green beans dumped from a can, Granville’s head chef serves fresh beans steamed but still crisp. Chips, brownies and soda have been replaced with yogurt, pudding and flavored waters. The fryer has been ditched in exchange for a steamer. Students eat with silverware on plates, not plastic on styrofoam.

Instead of lunchmeat turkey for sandwiches, 10–15 turkey breasts are cooked and sliced on-site each week. Last week the Granville High and Middle School cafeteria served Swedish meatballs, chicken quesadillas, taco salad, local veggie burgers, seasoned potatoes, corn, spinach bacon salad, calzones and more.

And best of all, more students are taking advantage of the healthier, tastier options and offsetting the increased costs of local and fresh. Compared to recent years, 38 more students are now purchasing their lunch instead of bringing it, Dilbone said.

“We’ve been talking and dreaming about this, but you’re doing something that’s quite stunning,” said local parent Anita Brown at the meeting.

Yellow Springs Superintendent Mario Basora said the district has made strides in its food offerings but still has a long way to go to get a school lunch that “mirrors the values in the community.” Moving to food servicer provider Sodexo has increased the quantity and variety of food, Basora said. This year, a fruit and vegetable bar was added at the Mills Lawn and the YSHS/McKinney School cafeterias and more vegetarian meals are on the menu.

“The biggest challenge right now is the dollars and cents,” Basora said, since local, organic products cost more. “We’re already struggling to break even with our cafe sales.”

Though it took Granville an initial cash outlay to buy the mixers, coolers and ovens (the school previously had no on-site cafeteria), last year the lunch program basically broke even, with revenue of around $700,000, Dilbone said. There are around 2,500 students in the Granville district, compared to just over 700 in Yellow Springs.

Dilbone himself reaches out to area farmers, sourcing potatoes from an Amish farm, apples from a nearby orchard and beef from a farm run by a former Granville student, whose cows graze a field the district’s school bus passes each day.

Food costs have definitely been higher since switching to local. Instead of Gordon Food Service ground beef that costs $1.83 per pound, their local free range ground beef costs $3.50. Gordon Food Service cookies are $0.13 each, whereas the similar-sized homemade cookies from a local baker are $0.25 each. To offset the increased costs, students are charged 10 cents more per lunch. And labor costs are kept low by using outside service provider AVI.

The program has not been without its challenges. Once they started receiving products in bulk, larger coolers were required. Elementary school students opt for the more unhealthy meal items, like pizza and stromboli. The menu must be flexible to account for varying availability of products. Farmers need to be encouraged to grow fresh vegetables later into the year.

But the benefits to the students and community have been clear, Dilbone said. More money circulates within the district by giving business to area growers. Students eat more fruit and vegetables and drink more water than usual. And Granville received good publicity at a time of much bad news for districts having to make spending cuts.

Basora said he hopes the local district can take small steps towards its goal of serving more local foods. By next school year, he hopes to have contracted with at least one local farmer and implemented a point-of-sale electronic system to increase lunch participation. He said the district also needs to prepare a list of food products available within a 25-mile radius of Yellow Springs schools. Several local farmers present at the meeting, including those who raise goats, pigs, cattle and vegetables, have already expressed their interest in growing for the cafeteria.

Basora said a local food program would entail many benefits to the local environment and economy, could be used to teach kids the consequences of overly-processed food and its alternatives and increase the health and wellness of students.

“For me and for my own family, personally, this is important,” Basora said. “We need to give good food to our kids.”


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