Not your typical gross lunch at these lucky NJ school cafeterias
The Bridgeton and Camden Public School Districts have teamed up with The Common Market, a non-profit Philadelphia-based food distributor in a farm-to-school pilot program to have fresh, locally sourced fruits, vegetables, and meats delivered to students.
The Common Market’s work is centered on supporting small and mid-sized family farms and helping to connect those farm-fresh products directly to institutions in the communities that those institutions serve, said Rachel Terry, national partnership director at The Common Market.
She said they’ve been working with the Camden and Bridgeton school districts for a few years now, supporting their local sourcing efforts. One challenge for these schools in sourcing from local farms is always budget.
“So what we’re seeing in other places across the country and what we’re hoping to model this year is what could happen when school districts across New Jersey have additional resources that they can lever to directly impact and invest family farmers across the state while increasing access to those local foods for their school meal programs,” Terry said.
Warren DeShields, the Bridgeton Public School District’s director of food services said “local” support communities and teach kids how to be sustainable and provide them with fresh fruits and vegetables. He said he was so grateful that The Common Market gave the district $25,000 to purchase food locally. The Bridgeton district chipped an extra 10-grand to keep the program going for this year and another $10,000 for next year, as well.
The pilot’s goal is to provide these school districts with additional incentives, to dream with them about what that will look like, and what products they always wished they could source on their school meal lines, but maybe couldn’t afford to do, Terry said.
The pilot hopes to leverage these resources in a way where these school districts can utilize their purchasing powers in a way that brings more local farmers to the school food market, create sustainable purchasing opportunities for growers and producers, and increases the amount of fresh, exciting and healthy foods for students and their communities, she added.
For the pilot, Terry said they’ve been working with growers already in The Common Market supply chain in New Jersey as well as another hub, Zone 7, which works with more New Jersey farmers.
In April, DeShields wanted to start with salad bars in the elementary schools because he wanted to give the younger kids healthier choices with Jersey fresh produce they would recognize such as broccoli florets, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, and blueberries.
Salad bars exist in three of the district’s elementary schools and they are open every day. The fruits and vegetables are coming into the schools every week from The Common Market. They are sourcing from GeoGreens in Hamilton and Element Farms in Lafayette.
But he did not want to stop with fresh fruits and vegetables. DeShields wanted to do local meats. So, he was able to purchase pork from Lima Family Farms in Hillsborough for the pork carnitas day at the high school.
DeShields says the schools will also be getting locally sourced chicken for the summer school menu and more pork as well. He would also like to get beef from some New Jersey farmers, if possible.
The kids and students absolutely love the fresh foods they are eating for lunch. DeShields said the kids shocked him on pizza day.
“They ran to the salad bar before they ran to the pizza line. It got to the point where the principal had to come over and get a little bit of order because they really enjoyed going to the salad bar, getting fresh salads, and blueberries,” DeShields laughed.
The biggest surprise he said, was that the children made salads with zero dressing. DeShields said the schools have a food service member on hand to teach the students about the ethics and rules of the salad bar, as well as try new things.
So, for example, he said if a child takes a bite of fresh radish and they don’t like it at first, try it again. Still not a fan? Put the dressing on it. But he said so many of them ate their salads dry, with no dressing, whatsoever.
Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer, R-West Deptford, along with employees from the State Department of Agriculture visited two of the Bridgeton district schools recently to see how the program was working out the in the lunchrooms.
DeShields said having these state officials here to see the local foods incentive pilot in action was so uplifting.
“The Common Market has shown up for public schools in so many ways. I was glad that Haile Johnston, co-founder, and Rachel Terry, were down here last week to see the impact that they’ve made on these students. It’s just been wonderful for us,” DeShields said.
Bridgeton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Miles also showed up and was able to see all the wonderful things these funds are doing for the food service program and the students who are served daily, he added.
“It’s been great. I just look forward to continuing it for our students because it’s a huge win-win for everybody,” DeShields said.
Currently, 15 different growers have accessed the school food market and Terry said the hope is to increase the number of growers in their supply chain.
Besides Camden and Bridgeton, Terry said The Common Market will be launching a similar program in the Newark Public School District this fall.