"We want our entire student body to see the tree to tray connection.” – Tracy Nelson, Food Service Director, Belding Area Schools
By Tessa Ladsten, Dietetic Intern, Western Michigan University. First appeared on the Michigan Farm to Institution blog, hosted by Cultivate Michigan.
Exposure to new and local foods begins in the school breakfast line at Belding High School. Tracy Nelson, Belding School District Food Service Director, was excited to be awarded a 10 Cents A Meal grant to help expand local offerings in Belding schools. Through this grant provided by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), Belding has been able to expand its local food offerings through partnering with Cherry Capital Foods – a local foods distributor based in Traverse City that serves the state. This project established a new connection between the school district and Michigan farmers that allow Belding Schools to expand their farm to school practices.
Belding High School has the benefit of partnering with Western Michigan University (WMU) to host a dietetic intern. Through this partnership, interns gain valuable experience in school nutrition, and the emphasis on sustainability within WMU’s program makes farm to school a natural fit. One project requirement for dietetic interns is a food demonstration, whichis a great opportunity not only to purchase from local farmers but also to promote local foods to students and encourage them to try new and unique vegetable varieties. To meet this requirement, made-to-order veggie omelets with a Michigan-grown root vegetable medley side dish were served at a special school breakfast in December. Vegetable options for the omelets included rutabaga, parsnips, leeks, broccoli, curly kale, red onion, and asparagus. The side dish contained Michigan-grown roasted candy cane beets, purple fingerling potatoes, slender sweet potatoes, rutabaga, parsnips, hakurei turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, and shallots. This project utilizes a “Smarter Lunchroom” strategy - offering a variety of fresh, chopped vegetable options – so that students are more likely to eat more vegetables.
Marketing materials were displayed for students to see while waiting in line for their omelets. Students had the opportunity to identify at which Michigan farm each vegetable was grown. This helped students make a deeper connection with where their food comes from. Since only vegetables were available, students were encouraged to choose ingredients that might be unfamiliar. Though some of the students were apprehensive to try new vegetables, many were open to trying the new local foods. On the meal satisfaction survey, one student commented: “What a great way to introduce us to new foods!”
Though a success, this feature was too labor intensive to be incorporated into the daily breakfast routine. Due to a high volume of students and time restraints, not all students could be served before the first hour bell rang. Fortunately, Cherry Capital provides pre-cut and quick-frozen fruits and vegetables that reduce preparation time and make it easier for school food service operations to incorporate fresh and local foods into their menus through Farm to Freezer. Cherry Capital’s Farm to Freezer program enables schools to serve Michigan fruits and vegetables in the off-season while meeting the National School Lunch Program requirements at the same time.
Students benefitted in many ways from this omelet demonstration. They were able to identify the source of the ingredients, enjoyed a healthy breakfast, and learned and tried new vegetable varieties. It was entertaining for kids to see their omelets freshly prepared right in front of them. Aside from the students, faculty waited in the omelet line that went out the door. They were just as eager and excited to try new root vegetables as the students.
Ms. Nelson explains the importance of farm to school initiatives when she says, “Educating students about local foods and healthy snacking are cornerstones of Chartwells contributions to the school districts and communities we serve. This is an excellent opportunity to support our local farmers. Farmers give up a meal at their tables so we can have meals at our tables. Some of our students currently work on farms and some of our students will work on farms after graduation. We want our entire student body to see the tree to tray connection.” This project was a fun and enjoyable way to promote farm to school initiatives at Belding High School. Belding Schools food service staff are planning another food demonstration focusing on French toast to incorporate local Michigan fruit toppings made from frozen fruits. Food demonstrations such as these make great monthly events featuring different local Michigan produce each time. More broadly, incorporating sustainable food practices into school meals may increase children’s awareness and empower them to support local foods in the future.