On the one hand, local farmers seek regular customers who can help keep
family-sized operations viable.

On the other hand, certain consumers have a bottomless appetite for food: teenagers.

Putting the two together makes the perfect match, right? Possibly.

Spurred by concerns about rising rates of childhood obesity, hopes for improving school nutrition and intent to live more sustainably, many area parents would like to change school menus to include more fresh, locally grown produce.

Yet purchasing fruits and vegetables straight off the farm has not been standard practice in Districts 65 and 202, given the constraints of logistics, school budgets and regulations governing food safety and nutrition.

Now that is changing. Inspired by the Farm to School program – a national initiative that aims to improve youth nutrition and sustainable agriculture by connecting local farms with schools – Evanston Township High School has begun working to regularly buy and serve fresh produce grown in Illinois and adjoining states.

And that is just the beginning. In the not-too-distant future, the source for some of the fresh produce served at ETHS could be the most local option possible: a working farm managed and maintained on school grounds by students.

This is exciting,” says Meghan Gibbons, director of nutrition services at ETHS. “We are ready for change and there’s lots of opportunity in this.”

Last March, Ms. Gibbons attended a “Farm to Cafeteria” national convention
in Portland, Ore., hosted by the Community Food Security Coalition and the
National Farm to School Conference. The meeting inspired Ms. Gibbons to look
into replicating programs now underway in more than 2,000 school districts
nationwide to buy and serve fresh produce grown near their communities.

About 80 percent of Illinois is farmland. Yet most of the state’s 28 million farm acres are dedicated to raising corn and soybeans, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA). That means relatively few farms – several hundred out of the state’s total of 76,000 – are growing products intended for local markets.

Indeed, Ms. Gibbons initially had trouble trying to negotiate with nearby farmers. What she needed as a nutrition services director did not match what area farms had to offer.

In Oregon, they have a million rules and regulations to help them out with farm-to-school initiatives,” Ms. Gibbons says. “In Minnesota, they have a farm-to-school facilitator who’s hired by the state board that helps schools get started [in the program]. In Illinois, we don’t have anything.”

Ms. Gibbons ultimately found the answer on her desk. She called her
regular produce distributor and asked him to start sourcing more food from local growers, defined as farms in Illinois or any adjoining state. The first week of school, fresh apples from Michigan were on the menu in all ETHS cafeterias.

Changes at the high school are apt to show up in District 65 meals, too. Through an intra-governmental agreement, the kitchens at ETHS prepare about 2,000 meals daily for Evanston‘s 11 elementary schools. While District 65 develops its own menus, Ms. Gibbons works daily with District 65 food service coordinator, Christine Frole, to coordinate purchasing and preparation.

Ms. Gibbons is now contracting with the high school’s produce distributor to regularly purchase fresh apples, blueberries, cucumbers, yellow squash, radishes, zucchini, peppers and tomatoes from Michigan. Fresh corn comes from Illinois. So far, locally grown produce is more expensive, says Gibbons, but she expects costs to come down as the year goes on.

And if a project on the drawing board at ETHS is realized, eventually the school will begin growing some of its own food. The proposed “Edible Acre” initiative would create a working one-acre farm on school property. Currently ETHS is seeking grants to fund the effort. In the
meantime, a smaller pilot project to establish a 5,000-square-foot combination community garden/outdoor classroom at the corner of

Dodge Avenue

and

Davis Street

is underway. This community garden/outdoor classroom will ultimately generate some produce, although not this season.

We abide by HACCP [food safety] standards, which were developed by NASA, so you can imagine how stringent they are,” says Ms. Gibbons. “We’ll be
working with the Evanston Health Department to make sure we’re doing things
as we should. But I think the Health Department is ready to help us see that
the foods are grown and handled properly. Even though it sounds complicated,
I think we can make it work.”

Karen Terry is a board member of
The Talking Farm. Along with the Evanston Food Policy Council (EFPC), The Talking Farm is committed to ensuring a safe and diverse regional food supply and fostering awareness of healthy food choices. For more information about EFPC,
call Debbie Hillman at 847-328-7175.