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Home grown

Area farmers could find new markets --- in schools


JoEllen Martino, the GenevaCentralSchool District's food-service director, isn't picky about the size of her broccoli --- or apples, pears, or tomatoes, for that matter. "I just got what was left over, which was fine by me because we didn't care what size it was," says Martino, referring to a school lunch order she made earlier this year.

She does, however, care how far that broccoli travels before it lands on a student's lunch tray. A forerunner in the "eat local" trend, Martino has worked for 15 years to serve students local fruits and vegetables next to the chicken nuggets, sloppy Joe's, and pizzas that make up a typical school lunch. "The stuff that I'm getting from California is probably five days old," Martino says. With a local farmer, it may be a day from farm to tray.

But eating local, for Martino, is more than just a taste preference. It's also an economic one. Farmers in a given district, says Martino, pay school taxes just like everybody else. Most farmers, however, ship their produce outside the region, or even the state. Not only do farmers have to pay more to distribute their goods elsewhere, the region also loses a key economic driver, Martino says. Her attitude has placed her at the forefront of a movement that's just now hitting the nation: Farm to School, or the practice of serving local produce in elementary, middle, and high schools.

The concept may eventually extend beyond just farm-school partnerships, says Tom Ferraro, executive director of Foodlink, an agency that redistributes food to soup kitchens, recreational centers, and similar organizations. Ferraro would eventually like to see local food served in all area institutions --- cafeterias, restaurants, recreation centers, and even hospitals. Currently, he says, the area's supply of produce outstrips demand. That, says Ferraro, needs to change.

Feeding students local produce and milk, however, isn't as easy as picking a tomato and putting it on a lunch tray, says Todd Fowler, a legislative chair for the New York School Nutrition Association and the food service director at BloomfieldCentralSchool District. In fact, until the passage of the state's Farm to School bill some two years ago, school districts were forbidden to buy directly from farmers. Instead, they had to go through "reputable purveyors." ("Not that farmers weren't reputable purveyors," Fowler hastens to add.)

Essentially, the state guidelines forced school lunch directors to buy food almost entirely through large distributors. Some lunch directors continued to buy from a local farmer or two for things like apples, but those relationships were severely limited.

The Farm to School bill, says Fowler, adds impetus to the eat-local movement. It also positions New York as a national Farm to School leader.

But Fowler says a lot more needs to be done to truly open Farm to School pathways. For one thing, state lawmakers need to address the issue of cost. Although rising fuel prices often make it cheaper to buy local, the price of produce is also determined by local weather conditions. This year, for example, says Martino, local potatoes and cucumbers are pricier than those outside the state, probably due to flooding.

And state guidelines require schools to buy produce from the lowest bidder, says Fowler. That means that if Washington's crop of Red Delicious apples are 5 cents cheaper, on average, than those of farmers in the region, school districts have to buy from a national supplier.

Because most school lunch budgets must break even on food and equipment costs through government subsidies and lunch money, it's hard for food service directors to buy more expensive local produce, says Jody Siegle, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association. State and federal governments do provide some help, she says, but typically that's in the form of food, not money. For example, schools often get cheese, powdered milk, and canned goods. Those products can't be sold or traded for local produce or other items.

So this year, says Fowler, the School Nutrition Association is supporting a proposed amendment to the Farm to School bill that would require the state to provide bigger subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables. According to the bill, the state gives schools 6.5 cents for most meals served, an amount that hasn't changed in 20 years. Backers of the bill are requesting an additional 5 cents per meal for fresh produce. The added subsidy would cost the state about $19 million.

Sponsors say the expense is justified, in part because it will help state farmers stay competitive despite rising prices. Citing the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, bill sponsors wrote that in 2005, prices in New Yorkrose more than in other parts of the country, and in 2004, produce prices jumped 17.1 percent. There is a direct relationship between produce prices and excessive weight gain by elementary-age children, they concluded, referring to recent USDA findings.

Fowler would also eventually like to see a measure that lets him bid specifically for produce grown in this state. "It would be nice to be able to keep New YorkState money in New YorkState," he says.

Changing state regulations alonecannot drive the Farm to School movement. "The farmers aren't aggressive enough," Martino says. "If they really want to sell to schools, they need to come to the schools."

The problem, says Ferraro, is that local farmers don't see school districts as viable customers. Because farmers decide months in advance how much seed or grain to buy, they can't supply food to schools on three days' notice. "It's not as simple as just being able to pick up the phone and call down to Upstate Milk and say, 'Make an extra 100 cases of chocolate milk tomorrow.' Somebody had to make a decision in December as to what feeds they should use," Ferraro says. That decision then determines how much milk the company can produce and the scope of its distribution capabilities.

And, says Brian Nicholson, co-owner of Red Jacket Farms in Geneva, it has traditionally been more profitable to sell outside Western New York. Nicholson says his family set up a warehouse in Brooklyn years ago. "You have a lot of supply," he says. "You have a wonderful growing base out here." But he adds that prices would go down if all the area's farmers sold only in Rochester because of oversupply.

Nicholson says he supports Farm to School initiatives, but adds: "You need a return that will justify your efforts. That is number one."

What's key, says Ferraro, is creating a grow-sell cycle between farmers and local customers, such as schools. If schools and farmers can come together now, they might be able to increase the amount of local produce in schools by next year. "I call it the water-wheel effect of things. You have to put enough weight in a bucket to turn it to the next bucket," he says.

But another challenge facing area farmers, particularly smaller ones, is getting their produce from their farm to the market. Many farmers, says Ferraro, can't deliver their produce to markets because they don't own refrigerated trucks. Other farmers find that truckers are reluctant to do short hauls.

With the help of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Foodlink has tried to lessen those barriers through a year-old program, Farm to Fork, a delivery service for area farmers. It includes linking Foodlink's soup-kitchen drivers with area farmers. "As our trucks are coming back empty from delivering charitable food to the outlying area," Ferraro explains, "we [might] pass your farm on 96A. We pick up your stuff and we bring it into Wegmans tonight."

Fowler hopes to eventually expand Farm to Fork to include drop-offs at local schools and other institutions, many of which require delivery to a central processing center.

Another barrier to Farm to School, at least in this area, is a growing season that runs almost directly opposite the school year. Martino says she's typically able to buy fall produce until about October and can start again with spring vegetables in May or so. But she reverts to national suppliers during the winter months.

Most area farmers, says Ferraro, lack cold-storage facilities. Nor can schools be expected to store local produce in their freezers year-round. But Ferraro thinks he has a solution, or at least a partial one: "We're in the process of acquiring a storage facility out in Wayne County, and that would give us the capacity to be able to store local things longer into the year, so we could, in fact, buy in bulk," he says.

Although the warehouse won't be able to preserve more delicate items, such as greens and tomatoes, Ferraro says produce such as potatoes, onions, apples, and squash can be stored for several months. The warehouse, he says, will be able to supply schools and businesses with local produce year-round.

"The only way you ate locally 50 years ago was if you had a root cellar," Ferraro says. "We're essentially providing the root cellar."

It's not easy, however, to move back in time. "We're in a second-generation fast-food culture," says Fowler. First came McDonald's and Burger King, and next came prepackaged meals, lunch in a microwave box, and bite-size vegetables. We are, really, the baby-carrot generation. Why peel and chop when it's just as good out of a bag?

Few school district and institutional workers take "regular iceberg lettuce and cut it up," says Ben Giambrone, owner of B. Giambrone & Co., Inc., a wholesale produce distributor in Rochester who sells both national and local produce to area school districts, such as Brighton and Fairport. Even the lettuce that comes on hamburgers, says Giambrone, is pre-cut. "Green leaf fillets, they call it," he says.

Giambrone attributes today's pre-cut culture to changing times. Previously, he says, businesses and schools "could afford to have somebody stand there and peel and the shred carrots." Not anymore. In the last five years, says Giambrone, the amount of his inventory that has been processed beforehand has risen to well over 50 percent.

Pre-cut, pre-prepped has become the staple of school districts, where food preparation takes too long and exposes food preparers to unnecessary risk. Concerns about liability, says Ferraro, have risen to the point where school risk assessors "have a coronary" when they envision food-service workers chopping vegetables with their thumbs exposed.

So Ferraro and Foodlink employees are considering moving in a direction they never anticipated: preprocessing and distributing food to schools. "We have such a large kitchen," says Ferraro, referring to Foodlink's Ling Road facility. There, workers already prepare food to distribute to food kitchens around the region. It wouldn't be a huge step, says Ferraro, to buy produce from area farmers, slice and dice it, package it, and then distribute it to area schools.

Giambrone says Ferraro might be onto something. Direct distribution is not profitable for many local farmers, he says, adding: "The smaller farmer is going to have a better chance, in my opinion, selling it to a processor." But that adds another layer between farmer and consumer, which inevitably raises prices.

Eating habits are changing, but those changes are more visible in larger marketplaces, says Nicholson, noting: "New York is much farther ahead." Eating local, he says, was "big six years ago down there." That trend, he says, is just beginning to take off here.

Ferraro believes college students may help accelerate the Farm to School movement. Ironically, he says, many urban students have grown accustomed to eating local. Rochesterians, he says only half in jest, are not quite "sophisticated enough in their palates."

Pat Braun, a University of Rochester senior and member of a campus group dedicated to sustainability, says it's frustrating to have to commit to a meal plans that give students limited choice over what they eat. "All four years you're required to have some type of meal plan," he says.

It's a small step, but Braun and his classmates are trying to organize a local farmer's market on campus this fall. The hope, says Braun, is to hold a market a couple of times a year to both increase students' awareness about the issues surrounding local food and provide area farmers with a little extra revenue.

And Cam Schauf, director of the U of R's campus dining services, says the university has been introducing eat-local initiatives for a couple years. For example, says Schauf, Meliora Restaurant, an on-campus dining hall, serves one entrée a day featuring New YorkState produce. Schauf says the university has also been asking local and national distributors to indicate which produce was grown in New York.

"Last year, our dining program developed our own environmental sustainability policy," says Schauf. "For us that means a combination of locally grown, organic, and then purchasing from organizations that are either fair-trade certified or practice the [same] standards."

Schauf agrees that colleges and universities provide an ideal marketplace in which to grow the Farm to School concept. "One of the things about colleges is that there is more of an awareness on the part of the customer," he says, adding that college dining hall staff might also have more experience handling local products. For example, he says, the U of R does not buy nearly as much pre-chopped, pre-packaged foods as school districts.

Ferraro hopes that as the movement gains momentum, local food will eventually pop up, first at colleges, then secondary schools, and finally at other large institutions, such as hospitals.

Ferraro, Fowler, and others acknowledge that Farm to School and other eat-local initiatives will take time. They say they realize that many school and institutional workers won't suddenly start chopping their own vegetables, and worker's compensation issues won't just go away. But Farm to School, says Fowler, is not a way of moving backward, but rather "realizing you made a wrong turn."

Here's a story about some homegrown greens, says Fowler: Toward the end of last year, he received greens from a local grower who washed and bagged the produce in 5-pound bags. "One got lost in the back of a room and I found it two weeks later," he says.

It was not the moldy mess that he expected, but rather looked perfectly edible. "Food less traveled," Fowler says. "That's key."

Local shipping? Not so easy

Laura Pederson's farm is 40 miles outside of Rochester and about 300 miles outside New York City. But, says Pederson, it's easier to find somebody to haul her produce to the Big Apple than to upstate markets. The trip to Rochester, however, is just too short to be profitable, she says.

This is true both for truckers, who spend at least half a day hauling produce from outlying areas to Rochester, and for farmers, who have to spend the same amount of time preparing crops for shipment downstate as for upstate. And, says Tom Ferraro, executive director of Foodlink, an area organization that helps local growers and processors, farmers usually make more money selling their produce further away, because of this area's oversupply of produce.

"The only way you can find demand is to leave Rochester," says Ferraro, who now ships produce from Foodlink's farm, Freshlink, to Brooklyn.

Witnessed firsthand, these complexities start to make sense. Standing in front of Pederson Farms in SenecaCastle on a surprisingly warm fall afternoon, I watch a forklift driver transport crates of cauliflower from a refrigerated barn to a refrigerated truck, hired to get the vegetables to market. The transfer process will probably take close to an hour. The truck driver stands and waits. And this, I now realize, is just one small step in a series that began, in all likelihood, at sunup. First, farmers harvest their produce, then they box it, then they store it in a cool area, then they load it into a truck, and then they get it to market. If a farmer can make more money shipping his produce farther away, why not do it?

Even for farmers just trying to supply to smaller markets and restaurants, the costs can be prohibitive. Many farmers don't have their own trucks, particularly refrigerated ones, and truckers are often reluctant to carry small amounts of produce such short distances.

For farmers who do have their own trucks, there are other logistical hurdles. Wegmans, for example, likes its shipments delivered between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. so produce can be in stores by the next business day. While night deliveries make sense for Wegmans, they further strain farmers. Whoever delivers the produce to Rochester misses at least a morning of work, if not the whole day, says Jack Montague, my chauffeur to Pederson and Foodlink's special programs director.

For those involved with eat-local initiatives, though, the reasons to keep local food local are numerous. Among them: less shipping equals less gas consumption, which helps the environment; keeping food local keeps money in the area; and fresh produce tastes better.

The growing impetus to keep food local is, in part, what prompted Foodlink to introduce Farm to Fork last year. Aimed at helping area farmers and processors get their food into regional markets, Farm to Fork lets farmers ship their produce on Foodlink trucks. In some cases, says Ferraro, it's a matter of simple logistics. For example, Foodlink delivers food to soup kitchens across the region. Until last year, those trucks were returning to Rochester empty. Now, says Ferraro, farmers who live en route can contact Foodlink and ship their produce to Rochester. In Pederson's case, says Montague, Foodlink was willing to send its largest truck, a 53-foot refrigerated tractor trailer, directly to her farm because of the size of the order.

Since its implementation about a year ago, says Montague, the demand for Farm to Fork has been overwhelming. "We figured last year the biggest we would do was 50,000 pounds of food," Montague says. "In fact, we did about 850,000 pounds of locally grown food." With the largest tractor trailer able to hold about 40,000 pounds of food, that equals more than 20 shipments.

Currently, says Montague, Foodlink has partnered with seven farmers and a cooperative that includes 15 farms. He hopes to expand that service over the next few years. Like most Foodlink missions, says Montague, Farm to Fork is not a charity service: Farmers pay to use it. "Whatever we make goes into the food bank for us to help buy [food] so it's replenished," he says.

Will kids eat it?

Putting fresh, homegrown broccoli, squash, and tomatoes on students' lunch trays may sound like a fantastic idea. But will kids actually eat it?

"So many children have the option of eating nachos and pizza, when you try to offer a green salad with turkey on top, it's challenging," says Celeste Barkley, Foodlink's vice president of programs. "Challenging, Barkley hastily adds, but not impossible.

The key, says Barkley, is trying to get children to eat healthy while they're still young. "The younger ones," she says, "are easier to please because they also want to please you. So if you say to them something like, Show me how you drink milk,' they would love to. The same methods don't work for all children, even in the same age bracket."

Measuring success, Barkley adds, can be challenging, since it's hard to calculate how much local food on students' lunch trays actually winds up in their mouth. There is anecdotal evidence, though, that children are getting used to healthier lunch options that include locally grown food. Referring to summer camps she oversaw this summer, Barkley says: "Visually, I've been able to see a decrease in the plate waste, a decrease in the amount of food that's been thrown away."