For Thanksgiving, FoodCorps Service Member Brings the Sweet Potatoes
Sebastian Naskaris Nov 21, 2011 The Beat 0 comments
The FoodCorps Mission
Getting local food into local schools is not impossible. In fact, on November 22nd — for the first time since anyone can remember — my county school system will be serving local sweet potatoes.
I am a young farmer and cook who is taking a year to serve with FoodCorps, a great new national nonprofit made up of fifty leaders who are trying to foster some much-needed change in our nation’s school food system.
One of the ways we do this is through getting local produce into our school cafeterias. Our goal is to make a big impact on the health of our nation’s kids, while making a smaller impact on the health of our nation’s environment. Side effects include stronger local economies, sustainable development, farmer support, a decreasing carbon footprint, and expanding entrepreneurship opportunities.
I serve in Moore County, North Carolina with CIS First School Gardens. The 12,500 students in my school district eat at school three times a day, but my district hasn’t used the Farm-to-School program for four years, so I set out to figure out why that was, and how I might change it. Here’s what happened:
Getting Farm-to-School Back Up and Running
First, I met with the Childhood Nutrition Director (CND). She helped me identify the hurdles facing the national Farm-to-School program in our county. CNDs must procure food through bids, and my CND had already contracted with her bidders for the year. Right way, we realized that we were too late to sign up for the program. But then she suggested trying to move local produce through the distributor she already used. Brilliant!
Then, out of the blue, the CND called me and said that, in just four weeks, she wanted to put sweet potatoes on the lunch menu — the very crop we had already certified!
I had to move quickly. First, I got the contact info for our CND’s distributor and started calling. I called for two weeks until finally he agreed to meet with me. Then, I got a price quote from the extension agent working as representative for our certified farmer.
Channeling Jimmy Stewart
Next, I jumped in my truck and drove up to Raleigh to meet with the distributor. I needed to figure out how to get our sweet potatoes into our schools — and see if I could do it while also getting our farmer’s demands met. But what if this head of distribution lived up to the stereotypical image I had in my head, sitting fat in a chair and leeching off the hard work of our producers? I pictured cigar smoke and the smell of french-fries. I began reciting a sort of mantra about the need for healthy children and strong local economies. I was channeling “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
I arrived at the office, told him our situation and our deadline, and started my Jimmy Stewart tirade. To my surprise, he sweetly listened, even agreed. And his office didn’t smell like cigars or French fries. I stated our farmer’s demands — his required price point and the ability to deliver the sweet potatoes himself. The distributor didn’t bat an eye. Though he told me he preferred to use his own trucks for delivery, allowing the farmer to deliver his own product was not a deal-breaker. The meeting ended; we shook hands in one of those business deal-type handshakes. Brilliant!
That is until my farmer called. The spuds wouldn’t be ready until a month after the due date. And so begins the portion of the story that is akin to running suicides in gym class (read: lots and lots of back and forth). Negotiating, calling, harvesting, explaining, changing menu dates, calling CFOs, holding the farmer’s hand as he called the distributor, and running to hold the distributor’s hand to pick up his phone. All of this while we sent scores of emails and made tons of calls to build support for these local spuds. The anxiety made me wanna barf.
Finally, the big day came. I was busy trying to replicate the process with a local carrot farmer, when I learned that the delivery had been made. We’d done it!
Local Food and Monkey Bars
Did you ever play on the monkey bars when you were little? That’s what getting local produce into a local school is like. You don’t know you’ve reached the bar you want until you are onto the next bar.
The steps you need to take to bring local food into your cafeteria may look quite different than the ones I’ve just described, but it’s important to find comfort in the process. You may be called upon to do things you’d never have guessed. You may feel like you’re running suicides, but the end line is supporting healthy lives; it’s well worth the struggle. Of course, once you establish the supply line from farm to school, the problem becomes getting kids to eat the foods you’ve provided. After all, it’s only healthy if it goes down. I call it monkey bar-ism.
Photos by Sabastian Naskaris (bio photo courtesy of FoodCorps)
Actor turned farmer and chef Sebastian Naskaris is a FoodCorps volunteer in Moore County, North Carolina. Sebastian was recently featured on NBC Nightly News for his work connecting students with their food through a school gardening project. You can read more about him here >