BEXLEY — “School food does not have to be great, it just needs to be good,” explained Juli Carvi, the director of food services at Bexley City Schools. She thinks she has the best job in the school, because it is rewarding for her to make kids happy (with lunch) and she does not have to worry about giving them grades.
“I have found zero resistance while implementing a Farm to School program in my district. The hardest part is the leg work and going after the Ohio products. It takes extra work for me to go after the products, but I am passionate about serving local foods. We [food service directors] need to identify it and get it into the mouths of the students closest to the food,” she said.
Bexley schools began using local foods about five years ago when they initiated Salad Bar to Schools with the Chef Ann Foundation. During August through October, they procure many local items. The growers Carvi works with reach out to her with their list of available produce. She first checked with her local health department and they confirmed that her cafeteria could use locally grown produce. They are involved in a harvest of the month program called Ohio Days: My Plate, My State. This program features one meal a month served in the school cafeterias that is entirely grown, raised and/or processed in Ohio. This program encourages schools to provide healthy, local, fresh foods in the cafeteria and learn about this food in their classroom or through experiential learning.
Franklin County Public Health (FCPH) created the Ohio Days program materials. As part of the program, students, their families and teachers are provided resources such as newsletters and a poster to feature the monthly menu. “Our younger students are very enthusiastic about Ohio Days, because they love anything that is promoted,” Carvi said.
“Our goal is to continue to use the Ohio Days promotion. We want to see more Ohio food in our cafeterias. We want more access [to local products] and have it prominently labeled. I want to keep our food closer to where it is grown. What I have learned through this program is there is not enough food processed in Ohio in order to have it available throughout the year,” Carvi said. “[Many] institutions want to procure local labels, but it’s not labelled locally for us to buy. I encourage more Ohio schools to become involved in Ohio Days, because the more we [institutions] demand the local products, the more interested the distributors and the decision makers will be about developing local processing for us.”
Her biggest take away about procuring local products is learning more about agribusiness and the complexity of manufacturing, distribution and about the whole process of getting foods delivered to the schools. “One example is the Conagra plant of Ohio, their products are sold nationally; therefore, it is not prominently labelled that their products are from Ohio, even though people in Ohio want to know,” Carvi added.
The enrollment at Bexley City schools is 2,300 students. Each day, more than 600 students are buying a whole lunch while 800 youth are buying at least one item. Carvi said, to serve local foods, school kitchens only need cutting boards, knives and people who know how to use them. In the 1980s we got away from scratch cooking. Once the Healthy Hunger Free Act was passed, the nutritional rules became more stringent which led us away from processed food and back to scratch cooking. In order for this to be successful, the kitchens need to be able to pay an appropriate hourly wage for those doing the work.
Bexley has a school garden at one elementary and one high school life skills class. Their school has experimented with tower gardens in the past, but saw an increase in their electric usage with them and so they no longer use the towers. They have a food waste program in place in which one of the science teachers collects the kitchen scraps to feed to his 50 chickens at his home. He brings in buckets and the school fills them with vegetable ends such as carrots, peppers and lettuce scraps. Their local farmers are Bryn Bird’s Haven Farms of Granville, Yellowbird Food Shed of Mount Vernon, Quarry Hill Orchards of Berlin Heights, and Bright Farms of Wilmington, which grows baby greens and herbs.
During a recent Ohio Days lunch, the school cafeteria had a visit from their local Congresswoman, Joyce Beatty. Carvi was able to discuss with Beatty her concern about Ohio’s need for more food processing infrastructure. “We can find protein items all year round, but not the produce in the cold months,” she said.