If you think it’s hard to please the people around your dinner table, imagine how Joe Brown feels. As director of food service for Columbus City Schools, he has more than 52,000 students to satisfy.
Every day of the school year, Brown’s staff prepares and serves meals to young people across the city. But before the food can be dished out, the menus have to be carefully planned. That means he and his staff must evaluate nutrition requirements, develop recipes and order food.
Recently, the Columbus City Schools added another step – serving Ohio-sourced foods. Once a month, every item on each student’s lunch tray is either grown, raised or processed in the Buckeye State. “We had been exploring the idea of a farm-to-school initiative for the last couple of years,” Brown says. “We were inspired by Minneapolis City Schools, which has a similar program. We thought if they could make the commitment in a state that has a shorter growing season, we could do it, too.”
That commitment led to the launch of Ohio Days: My Plate, My State in January 2017. The first lunch featured turkey from Bowman and Landes in New Carlisle, apples from Bauman Orchards in Rittman, stuffing from Sandridge Foods in Medina, milk from United Dairy in Martins Ferry and salad greens from Waterfields in Cincinnati.
In the following months, students’ plates were filled with everything from meatball subs and beef lo mein to pizza, burgers and fresh fruit. Everything had a tie to Ohio: tomato sauce from Hirzel Canning in Toledo, beef from JTM Food Group in Harrison, noodles from Marzetti in Columbus, cheese from Miceli’s in Cleveland and strawberries from Rhoads Farm in Circleville, among many others.
“The response from the students was really positive,” Brown says. “Not only did they enjoy the foods, they also learned what is produced in their state.”
Big Challenge, Big Benefits
Ohio Proud, a Department of Agriculture program that promotes agricultural products grown in Ohio, was a natural partner. Lori Panda, senior project manager for the department, helped connect Brown with Ohio Proud companies.
“Because Columbus is the largest district in the state, it was challenging for them to source enough product,” Panda says. “We have relationships with lots of growers and producers and shared that information to help ensure success.”
That focus on building relationships with vendors creates a variety of benefits: students try new foods; local growers and producers have new opportunities; and smaller districts see an example they can duplicate. There are sustainability benefits as well, since fewer resources are required to ship apples across the state instead of across the country.
The partnership with Ohio Proud includes an educational component, as well. Panda arranged for special posters to be created for the school cafeterias to show students and faculty exactly where their lunch ingredients came from.
“We’ve received a lot of positive feedback on this initiative,” Brown says. “Everyone who learns about it is ready and willing to help, from The Ohio State University and the Extension Office to ODA to the public health departments and the vendors.”
Brown explains that it also can require a lot of extra effort from the food staff. For instance, since the local strawberry supplier doesn’t have processing capabilities, the staff washed 6,000 pounds of strawberries for the May lunch.
“Everyone is committed to the effort because they believe it’s the right thing to do for our students and our state,” he says.