When schools shut down a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest challenges districts faced was finding a way to provide and deliver the school meals children had come to rely on, especially for low-income families.
Officials from local districts went into action, coming up with innovative ways to ensure students could still rest assured they’d receive school meals. But simply putting food on lunch trays is not the end game for schools when it comes to what they want to achieve with their lunch programs. Since 2017, the East End Farm to School Project, a coalition of the Bridgehampton, Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts, has been taking an approach that benefits the entire community — from students and their families to local farmers. Thanks to a $99,389 grant from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, they will be able to both continue and expand that work.
The East End Farm to School Program was started in 2017 as a way to incorporate more local, healthy produce into school lunch menus. It’s a program that makes sense for a number of reasons, and the value it adds to schools and communities has been made even more clear during the pandemic, explained Heather Meehan, who is the coordinator for the East End Farm to School Project.
“This past year has highlighted the gaps in our supply chain and inequities in food access, with empty grocery store shelves and long food pantry lines,” she said. “Buying locally not only addresses the supply chain gaps, but also supports the local economy, which pays dividends for everyone in our schools and surrounding communities.”
Ms. Meehan pointed to research showing that $2 in economic activity is generated for every $1 spent on local food.
“Farm to School is one of the most valuable investments a district can make to improve quality of life for students and families inside of school and out,” she said, adding that because of high land and labor costs on the East End, local produce is often prohibitively expensive for many families, which means the program not only helps address food inequities, but also has the potential to provide year-round income for local farmers in what is a highly seasonal economy.
In its five years of existence, the program has expanded both opportunities and palates, and it has provided a valuable degree of education about nutrition. With the help of food service directors in the districts it partners with, the program has facilitated monthly taste tests for students, and incorporates “Harvest of the Month” recipes into the cafeteria menu. Those recipes include bounty like peaches, pears, and apple cider from Milk Pail Farm; potatoes from Wesnofske and Corwith Farms; tomatoes, carrots and squash from Halsey Farms; spinach from Sang Lee Farm; kale from Balsam Farm; strawberries from Wickham or Lewin Farms; yogurt made at Goodale Farm, and honey from Bonac Bees. With the passage of “No Kid Goes Hungry” legislation, there is now increased funding for school food service programs who procure 30 percent or more food products from within the state.
The grant funding was actually approved a year ago, but the money was not made available to the program right away because of a spending freeze due to COVID.
Regan Kiembock, the director of food services for the Southampton School District, explained what the funding means for the program.
“The grant funding will allow not only for the Farm to School Coordinator to build on existing relationships with local farms and farmers, but also to purchase some kitchen equipment and provide training to food service staff,” she said.
Ms. Meehan is excited about the opportunity the grant will provide to expand the educational component of the program.
“One of our major goals for this grant cycle is to develop a plan to highlight Farm to School in the classroom,” she said. “All three districts have school gardens, which are run by teachers, including Christina Duryea at Southampton, Matt Doris at Tuckahoe, and Judiann Carmack at Bridgehampton, and that gives students the opportunity to learn about growing their own food. We are collaborating with partners at Cornell Cooperative Extension and Long Island Farm Bureau to develop a long term plan for curriculum integration.”
Ms. Meehan’s role as farm-to-school coordinator for the three districts is key, as she will work to continue the good work the program is already doing, add new elements, and incorporating agricultural education. She started a “Farmer of the Month” initiative, highlighting local growers from across the South Fork, and the program is branching out to work with other local food purveyors beyond farmers: a fish taco made with seafood from Haskell’s in East Quogue has become a popular menu item at Southampton.
Ms. Meehan gave credit to Ms. Kiembock and others, including Matt Doris at Tuckahoe and Dan Pancella at Bridgehampton, for keeping the program afloat and active during the last year in the face of so many challenges. Southampton received additional funding to sponsor the emergency meals program over the summer from No Kid Hungry and All for the East End, and other emergency grant funding was key during that time as well.
Ms. Meehan is proud of the Farmer of the Month initiative, and said it was an idea she and Ms. Kiembock adopted from other programs and were happy to incorporate in the districts they serve.
“We had strong preexisting relationships with many local farmers and decided to thank them in a formal way, and let the students and families know the face behind the food,” Ms. Meehan said.
The farmers are featured on flyers, social media, and on the school websites. Ms. Meehan said she’s hopeful that in the coming school year, they can include virtual farm tours and, when safety protocols allow, have farmers come visit the schools in person again.
“It’s a natural extension of Harvest of the Month, which helps students and families recognize the essential workers producing food right in our own community. In some cases, those farmers may also be parents or family members of students in our districts.”
Ms. Meehan, Ms. Kiembock and others involved with the program hope it can expand to include other districts as well. The Farm to School Project is working in coordination with the East End Food Institute to apply for a USDA grant that would bring the program to the Riverhead and Westhampton Beach school districts.