FOUR Manchester schools and two Nashua schools will not be receiving cardboard pizza from a national warehouse when they sit down to school lunches this autumn. They will be eating pizza made with local sauce and tomatoes from their classrooms.
A University of New Hampshire initiative is helping to change that. It helps both schoolchildren and local farmers learn more about the origins of their food.
Stacey Purslow (Farm to School Coordinator) said that the program is based out of Durham University and has three components:
Connecting school food services to locally-raised food.
Curriculum for Farm to School classes
They sponsor the New Hampshire Harvest of the Month Program and the Indigenous New Hampshire Harvest Calendar.
Purslow stated that it was difficult to determine how many schools belong FTS. Some schools have gardens while others don’t, but they do get to enjoy the produce of local farmers.
Jameson Small, coordinator for the Fresh Start program at the Organization for Refugee Success, explained how the Farm to School program benefits many constituencies. He oversees 25 farmers, most of whom are from Nepal, Sudan and Burkina Faso. The majority of them are from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Somalia. The majority of the farmers, who are mostly women, had worked the land in their countries, but ended up living in apartments in America. They were unable or unwilling to farm or garden. Fresh Start allows them to get back on the ground, in leased and purchased land, so they can provide for their families the best produce.
According to Small, the Fresh Start program consists of four components
A CSA is Community Supported Agriculture model.
Pop-up market that focuses on low-income neighborhoods
Healthy Corners Program designed to supply corner shops with fresh produce
And, most recently, Farm to School.
Small stated that the agency applied multiple times for a USDA grant to support Farm to School. The first year of a $100,000 grant is currently in place.
Super-surplus of tomatoes
Small realized that his farmers were producing tons of tomatoes and the pizza idea was born. He explained that it was a super surplus. His organization started freezing the excess two years ago. They were able to make batches of tomato sauce with the help Genuine Local, a Laconia shared commercial kitchen. He said that the sauce was ready in just days, complete with labels and bar codes.
This concept was used by the agency for its Farm To School initiative. They have partnered up with six schools and two community garden sites, one in Manchester and the other in Nashua.
Seeds begin in the classroom
Small said that in spring, students in each school plant tomato seedlings and let them germinate in class up to a foot. The young plants are then taken to Manchester Grows, where 2,000 plants are given to Fresh Start Farms gardeners, and 3,000 to members from the two Community Gardens.
The tomatoes will be frozen in the fall and taken to Genuine Local, Meredith, to be made into pizza sauce. Later in the autumn, students from the six schools can enjoy pizzas made from the sauce they grew. The process will resume, with small hopes.
Small is pleased to announce that the program was also awarded a grant for the hiring of a videographer and that the entire cycle will now be filmed.
Last year, the program produced less pizza sauce than usual and we critiqued it. He said that we wanted it to be thicker and the packaging changed.
He also hopes to use more of the produce of refugee farmers. He stated that fresh basil can be obtained for the sauce. It’s almost a complete meal if we can grow the ingredients for a salad.
FTS has many benefits
Purslow stated that this is one of the many advantages of FTS. She said that the school gardens help children learn healthy eating habits and how to grow vegetables. It gives them a sense if food sovereignty. The farmers are also supported and kept viable. This helps to preserve New Hampshire’s rural landscape.
She added that there is also an environmental benefit and the benefit of keeping money in your community.
Purslow stated that school menus can be prepared up to a month ahead of time, which requires planning by food service managers. It’s more than just “Hey, you, we need to have more broccoli.”
She explained that school dieticians have the opportunity to connect with the Food Hub network. They can also use the website to place orders. She also hosts matchmaker events between food service workers and farmers, she said. Purslow said that while some food service managers have developed relationships with growers themselves, this was not the case during COVID.
Children love to be engaged in classroom and lunchroom activities. She explained that there might be a taste-test of New Hampshire apples in the fall with kids voting for their favorite. The program also introduces varieties of produce that kids may not be familiar, such as heirloom tomatoes.
All levels of government must work for change
Purslow praises the pizza-making project, noting the good collaboration between the farmers and the classrooms as well as the community partners.
She is aware, however, that there is still much to do. She noticed that fast food is everywhere and that prepared food is also available. Cheap food is a popular choice for families that are struggling financially. This is why the school lunch program exists.
The new standards require that there be at least one vegetable and one protein per meal. She stated that French fries are no longer an option. They will be sweet potatoes and roasted potato. You will need to adhere to sodium and saturated fat limits.
Purslow stated that a bill was introduced in the last legislative session to encourage schools to purchase more local food. She hopes to see a retooled version of the bill in the next legislative sessions.
As part of a relief effort for supply chain problems, the USDA recently awarded grants to each state to purchase local food for schools. Purslow will help to draft the grant request. New Hampshire’s share is $570,000. She is certain that, if she is granted, she will find positive, efficient ways to spend the money.
She’s interested in equity and how to make the best food available to students of low income and minority backgrounds. She said she would like to see more children of immigrants receive culturally appropriate food.
Small has a vision to help more Granite State children learn about where their food comes form and make it happen. We are only working with 3,000 children now, he said. But it’s a way for us to get in touch with them.