Easy pick, hard sell for family's grown produce - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Easy pick, hard sell for family's grown produce

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — There's a budding movement in Franklin County to shift school lunches away from french fries and back to the family farm.

Larry Ayers started hauling bushels of his Owen County-grown apples to school cafeterias four years ago.

Hutcherson Family Grown Produce has sold tomatoes, bell peppers and seedless watermelon to Franklin County Public Schools for more than a decade.

Susan Hutcherson, who runs the 20-acre Peaks Mill farm with her husband, says it started with a phone call to the school district.

"It's home-grown, and I think that means a lot," Hutcherson said, standing next to a cartload of watermelons at the Franklin County Farmers Market last week.

"Eating produce that's grown locally is so much healthier for you, I think, than having to eat something that's been brought over by a ship or transported from another country."

A five-member team began work this summer to boost the amount of local produce served in school cafeterias. The group attended a workshop in July to kick-start the effort, led by state agriculture, health and education groups.

"Food is a holistic thing — it's not just what we do at breakfast, lunch and dinner," said Franklin County Extension agent Kim Cowherd, one of the team members.

"It affects everything that we do, and it's a really critical thing now, because kids aren't tied to farming or where their foods come from."

Debbie Bell represents the Franklin County Health Department, and both local food services directors — Geraldine Jette of Franklin County Public Schools and April Peach-Yancey of Frankfort Independent — participate.

City commissioner Sellus Wilder is also part of the group because of his work with community gardens and the YMCA's childhood obesity task force, Cowherd said.

Franklin County's team was one of 11 to participate in the Farm to School workshop, organized by the Kentucky Farm to School Taskforce.

The taskforce brings together the Department of Agriculture, the Community Farm Alliance, the Kentucky Department of Education, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension, UK College of Public Health, Kentucky Action for Healthy Kids, and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

To participate, communities had to have a high percentage of kids eligible for free or reduced lunch prices; 50 percent of Franklin County students qualified last year, according to the Kids Count Data Report released last month.

"We're dealing with food, and we're dealing with institutional systems and a lot of bureaucracy," Cowherd said."Having a well thought out plan is going to be key."

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The barriers to "buying local"

When Cowherd attended Collins Lane Elementary — an unmentionable number of years ago, she jokes — the cafeteria served more home-cooked food.

Society moved away from that at home too, she said. But she sees younger generations, especially people in their 20s and 30s, heading back to cooking from scratch and canning.

"It's doable, but where some of those things have been lost over the generations, and we're trying to implement those systems again, we're going to have to change the way we do things on a routine basis," she said.

"It's easy to talk it, but it's hard to walk it. We've gotten used to the way we eat."

Elaine Russell, chair of the Kentucky Farm to School Taskforce, says representatives of state agencies are studying programs statewide to determine how many schools are participating and what kind of barriers they face. Their work is funded by a $230,000 grant from the federal stimulus fund.

Russell, who works for the Department for Public Health in obesity prevention, says state agencies will then consider changing policies that could "make it more sustainable and easier" for schools to participate.

The taskforce has distributed three mini-grants to schools in Lee, Owsley and Jackson counties and will give out five to seven more next spring.

"It's not just sourcing local foods in the cafeteria it's getting kids' hands dirty and showing them where their food comes from," she said.

"When we do that, we know that kids will actually eat more fruits and vegetables, and adults too."

Jette, food services director for FCPS, says she buys local produce because it's fresher, and it helps local farmers.

The school district spent approximately $49,000 on produce last year, most of it from Roby's Country Gardens, a 50,000-square-foot fruit and vegetable distribution center in Bardstown. Roby's is a processing facility that serves customers in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee.

But when farmers can offer the same produce at the same price, she buys local.

"We always want to support our local farmers," Jette said. "You know where your food comes from, and it can't get any fresher. It's almost like you're picking it from your own backyard."

It didn't start in Franklin County as a program or initiative, she said.

"You just knew farmers who were growing produce that we usually bought from our regular vendor, but we could get it from them fresher and at the same time help our local farmers," she said.

Jette says the price farmers and vendors charge isn't much different. A bushel of apples costs $26 on average, she said.

Farmers make an offer, and she contacts the cafeteria managers at each school. They decide how much produce they want, and in some cases, like with apples, what kind.

Jette writes the menus at Central Office and reviews them with each school, making sure that the meals meet cost and nutrition guidelines.

"It's basically about the same (cost)," she said. "If it's different, I don't mind paying a local farmer a little more because of the freshness."

But school cafeterias face barriers to buying from nearby farmers — and that's what Cowherd and her team hopes to change.

Lunchroom workers don't have enough time to process fresh produce, she said. Instead of buying whole tomatoes from a local farmer, they might buy pre-made spaghetti sauce, tomato juice or salsa.

Jette agreed. The school district buys potatoes from a large vendor for that very reason.

"Since the volume is so big at most of the schools, it would be a lot for us to wash them, peel them and all of that," she said.

There's also the issue of storage between growing seasons. It's easy to freeze fresh fruits and vegetables for use during the winter, but then there's nowhere to put them.

Jette says she has no choice about where to buy apples in the middle of winter.

"We can get this product year-round from the vendor," she said. "But when it's out of season from your local farmer, it's done for the year."

A small, local processing facility or commercial kitchen could help, Cowherd said. Workers — or even volunteers — could wash, peel and cut fruits and vegetables in bulk and distribute them to nearby schools.

Or cafeteria workers could get training in how to process produce on site.

"There's some discussion about that in the community," she said.

"How can we process our local and regional foods in bulk so that the schools can be able to use them without putting in a lot of labor during their short time period?"

There's also the issue of quantity.

Hutcherson said her farm didn't sell tomatoes to FCPS this year — though it has in the past — because they just didn't have enough to meet the school district's needs. That's the same reason Ayers doesn't sell them peaches from his orchard.

To solve that problem, Cowherd says a broker could gather produce from several small farms until the need is met. Or schools could get different types of produce — tomatoes at Collins Lane and lettuce at Franklin County High School, for example.

Small districts like FIS, or private schools, could contract with one farmer to purchase all their produce. That would keep farmers from having to sell at farmers markets, she said.

"Food services people have a lot of barriers that make it difficult for them to purchase local, and it makes it difficult for them to purchase affordable, high quality foods," Cowherd said.

"It has to be cost effective for the farmer and the school, and we've all got to understand each other ... everybody's got to be at the table and talking."

Jette says she's interested in buying more local produce, but it won't be easy.

"We also have to be realistic," she said. "You can't just make a firm commitment (to a farmer), because if you need it and they don't have it, you do have to have that vendor there that can bring you that."

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Local farmers do their part

Most of the farmers who sell to school cafeterias also sell at farmers markets or produce auctions, Cowherd said.

That means they likely have training or certification in the Good Agricultural Practices program run by the state Department of Agriculture, Department for Public Health and county extension offices.

GAP training covers safe and sanitary practices during planting, the growing season, harvest, packing and storage, she said.

Shoppers don't know what goes into foreign-grown produce, Hutcherson said, like irrigation techniques and shipping.

The Hutchersons water most of their crops from a well, using raised beds and a drip irrigation system. The technique saves water by applying it directly to the plants' roots, and allows them to grow crops into the fall.

Elkhorn Creek, which runs directly behind their Stedmantown Lane farm, waters their cornfields.

They are now harvesting white lady turnips, radishes, leaf lettuce, beets, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage. They sell from April to mid-November at farmers markets in Franklin, Owen and Woodford counties.

Larry Ayers, of Ayers Family Orchard, started supplying Franklin County schools with apples and plums four years ago.

His 10-acre orchard in Owenton is filled with 850 apple trees, 100 peach trees, 50 plum trees, blackberry bushes and some stray persimmons and wild grapes.

Ayers delivers 60 bushels of apples to Franklin County schools every two weeks, mostly gala, red delicious, golden delicious and McIntosh.

He grows more than 40 types of apples in his orchard, and he tries to meet special requests from each school. Elementary schools — especially the Early Learning Village, where the oldest students are 6 — ask for small apples.

"They don't want a big apple, don't need a big apple," Ayers said. "That would be a problem for them because they would waste a lot of apples. Smaller apples go a lot further."

This year, he's sold 400 bushels of apples to Jefferson County schools and also added Owen County to his list.

He sells some of his apples at produce auctions, where people buy them for resale at their produce stands, grocery stores or in restaurants. Some school systems buy there too, and Ayers says his apples have gone to schools in Perry County that way.

"They're trying to get some more Kentucky food into the school system, and by doing that, you're getting more nutrition," he said. "That's a lot better for the children, having fresh, nutritious food."

As Ayers delivered apples to a school recently, he watched as workers unloaded a tractor-trailer full of french fries.

"That's an awful lot of french fries," he said, laughing. "There is something else out there to eat other than chicken nuggets and french fries."

He says kids will eat fruits and vegetables — and ask for seconds — if they are fresh and homegrown. Local food just tastes better, he says.

"The children will eat a lot more of the apples we bring than the ones they get from wholesale," he said. "It's like a fresh apple we grow, compared to one you get at a chain grocery store."

Ayers and his workers pick apples from late June through October. His orchard has been in operation since 1983 on the site of his wife's grandfather's farm.

They sell apples, cider, jam, plum jelly and honey from the barn next door to their house using the honor system. Shoppers jot down what they buy on a clipboard and leave their money in a basket.

Ayers sells apples to schools through Thanksgiving. Gala apples can be placed in cold storage for several months, but otherwise it's tough to provide fruit through the winter.

"A lot of people have asked me, What kind of machine do you pick them with?'" he said. "There are no machines. We pick every one by hand — they bruise too easily."

Store-bought apples may come from as far away as Washington state, he said, and can be held in cold storage for a year before they hit the supermarket shelves. They are often picked green and coated with commercial-grade wax so they last longer.

"They're not as sweet, they're not as flavorful, and they're not as nutritious — so many people are realizing that now," he said.

"My grandkids will be home from school in a few minutes, and they'll be grabbing an apple, because they've grown up with them.

"It's a good feeling that we can raise something that's good and healthy for people, especially for the kids," he said. "If they can learn to like fresh fruits and vegetables, they're going to be healthier for a whole lifetime."

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From the cafeteria to the classroom

"You'd be surprised," Jette said, lowering her voice a bit. "Some of (the kids) don't even know how a whole tomato looks. They're used to just seeing everything already cut up and processed, they forget how a vegetable looks."

Cowherd says incorporating the science and economies of food into the classroom will be a big part of the team's work. Teachers can relate the issue to math, science, history, economy and business, she said.

One example is at Capital Day School, where students plant literary-themed gardens and study the way Native Americans grew crops. Students also study food and economy by taking a trip to the farmers market, buying within their budgets, and cooking a meal when they return to school.

Students at Franklin County elementary schools have planted their own gardens too. Fifth-graders at Elkhorn Elementary started a classroom garden in April on the site of an old playground.

With the tomatoes, basil and oregano they grow there, the students will be able to make their own pizza.

"We are willing to use them in the lunch room if they grow them," Jette said. "I think it would be a nice experience for the child to see it go from the seed to the serving line."

Russell, with the Kentucky Farm to School Taskforce, says she hopes schools will schedule field trips to local farms, bring farmers into the classroom, teach kids about nutrition and grow classroom gardens.

"We know that farm to school is kind of a win-win-win," she said.

"Kids eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, it creates an additional market for farmers, and it's good for the classroom teachers and food service directors because it can increase lunch participation."

Cowherd says she thinks the Frankfort community can come together to improve school lunches — and kids' health.

"But I think it's going to take a lot of people and it's going to take funds," she said. "But there's a lot of grant money and a lot of assistance out there right now for this kind of thing because it is so critical."

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