Nurturing a Culture Shift in School Cafeterias

Nurturing a Culture Shift in School Cafeterias

Nurturing a Culture Shift in School Cafeterias

When Laura Plaut wanted to help build a farm-to-school program in Whatcom County, Wash., she figured the best approach was to focus on local farmers, by equipping them with the special tools and knowledge needed to meet the requirements of an institutional buyer. Turns out, she was wrong.

What Plaut quickly discovered—and caused her to re-focus of her 2009 SARE-funded project—was that in her community, the more immediate barriers to farm-to-school opportunities were not with farmers knowing how to work with schools, but rather with school administrators being ready to work with farmers.

In order to start bringing more local produce into school cafeterias, a culture shift was needed among districts’ food service administrators, Plaut found. “I think they’re so overwhelmed with the idea of feeding kids within federal dietary guidelines and given their budget constraints,” she says. “It’s not that they don’t care philosophically, it’s that they don’t know how to take their caring and translate it into daily practices.”

So Plaut, executive director of Common Threads Farm, an educational nonprofit in Bellingham, used her SARE funding to help start a network of school gardens, because  she feels that getting kids excited about growing fresh food will make them more willing to eat it when it gets served in the cafeteria.

Today, there are gardens at 14 schools, including 11 in the Bellingham school district, the largest in the county. Between recess, art projects and class activities, the gardens are in constant use. The program employs professional garden educators, which Plaut says takes the burden off over-stretched teachers and makes them more willing to incorporate the gardens into their curricula.

The gardens have also proved to be one of the most successful inroads with food service administrators to date. By fall 2013, Bellingham district officials were planning to establish a protocol for using their gardens’ produce in their cafeterias, which Plaut thinks will open the door to food staff working with farmers. “I’m hoping the work we’re doing now with school gardens will also make food service increasingly friendly to local farmers,” Plaut says.

watercolor picture of a garden

Along with establishing the gardens, Plaut found herself attending meetings with parents and administrators, and lots of them. She joined local farm-to-school advisory committees and helped create educational resources on local-food procurement for food service staff. One of the larger objectives of these meetings, Plaut says, was to show administrators that “this is a community that’s dying to see this happen.”

Through her experiences, Plaut learned that when school food service administrators are not ready to embrace change, parental involvement is critical. “I think parents are really important players in any kind of school reform, and it’s as true with lunch as with anything else,” says Plaut, a mother herself. “I think parents are more important than farmers on this one, because from the school district’s perspective, parents are the customer.”

Specifically, those parents who might otherwise pack lunch for their children need to be shown that the cafeteria can also be a good, nutritious option that supports farmers in their community. Slowly in Whatcom County, that is happening.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FW09-016, Local Farms, Health Kids -- The Small-Scale, Sustainable Producer's Role in This Legislatively Mandated Opportunity .

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