In the face of economic uncertainty for many small- and medium-sized New England farms, Boston Public Schools’ pivot toward more local food could not come at a better time. AFE’s Jeremy Edelman provides an update.
Shopping at farmers’ markets. Supporting nearby farm stands. Joining a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The local food movement has grown from its infancy in the past twenty years to a mainstream movement. Every time you opt to buy local, you are contributing those few dollars to a nearby food producer or manufacturer and making a statement about your food values.
Now imagine doing that 50,000 times each day. That’s the power of institutional food buying. Each day, Boston Public Schools (BPS) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) serves approximately that many meals across more than 120 schools in Boston. With such an immense volume of food being purchased and served daily throughout the school year, FNS has substantial impact on nodes up and down the food supply chain—food producers, wholesalers, processors, and distributors.
FNS is working toward incorporating more local food into school meals. Last year, the Kendall Foundation awarded BPS a two-year grant to build capacity in local procurement, marketing, and employee training. Coronavirus pandemic aside, with ever-changing federal nutrition policies, the school food trilemma (balancing cost, nutrition, and participation), and the short New England growing season, shifting the school food menu is no simple task. Cafeteria employees are used to working with uniform fruits and vegetables, not local raw potatoes of varying sizes; distributors often only carry seasonal produce when they can buy in bulk; and if you remember back to when you were twelve years old, schoolchildren tend not to be the most adventurous eaters.
Despite all these challenges, FNS has made some impressive inroads. Local items (sourced from the six New England states) served this school year included tomatoes, cheese, potatoes, tortillas from local wheat, squash, watermelon, peaches, parsnips, fish, and more. In October, all 120+ schools hosted a Local Food Day, on which the lunch served was close to 100 percent locally grown. The school chefs used the seasonal offerings to develop new recipes, which were used to train cafeteria managers. Overall, the school district increased local food spending from less than one percent of total expenditures to about four percent in just one school year.
While the school district will remain closed for the remainder of this school year, there is excitement within FNS about the potential for future growth. Ideas include partnering directly with farms, bringing the farmers to students (or the students to the farm!), and introducing more taste testing to expose students to unfamiliar foods. In the face of economic uncertainty for many small- and medium-sized New England farms, BPS’s pivot toward more local food could not come at a better time.
Jeremy Edelman is a second-year AFE student at the Friedman School, focusing on creating a more climate-friendly and equitable food system, using the lens of sustainable business. He is the Procurement Specialist at Boston Public Schools, working with farmers, vendors, distributors, and the FNS team to build local procurement capacity at BPS. Jeremy is also a research assistant for a Conservation Law Foundation project studying land access and loss for community gardens in Worcester, MA. These days, he spends an inordinate amount of his time indoors, hoping the world heals quickly, while procrasticooking.