It’s Back-to-School Season, and Local Food Is on the Cafeteria Menu This Year

Flash-freezing facilities can help bring more regional products to large institutions such as schools and hospitals.

(Photo: Erik Rank/Getty Images)

Aug 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

It’s sweet-corn season in Iowa, and with the school year about to commence, it would seem that the easiest way to get ears on the lunch trays of students would be to truck the harvest straight to the cafeteria. Well, kids who attend Des Moines Public Schools can expect more local corn on the menu this year, but it’s not coming to them straight from the stalk. The district’s solution might seem counterintuitive at first: To serve more local food, it’s working with a processing plant.

Last August, with help from a USDA loan guarantee, 13 farmers founded Iowa Choice Harvest. The Central Iowa plant flash-freezes Iowa-grown produce the day it’s picked, without added preservatives, sugars, or sodium. For Des Moines Public Schools, the plant has helped eliminate two of the biggest hurdles keeping local foods off the lunch line: price and logistics.

“Here in the Midwest, our growing season is so short,” explained Chad Taylor, child nutrition management specialist and executive chef for Des Moines Public Schools. When farmers are pulling in their crops, “the kids are out of school. That’s why we need that flash-frozen product.”

Flash-freezing has also eased some of the burden on the farmers’ side, where any number of unforeseen variables prevent them from meeting a large, specific demand to a sizable buyer like a school. Some growers just won’t make that commitment in the first place if a school or hospital comes calling. Iowa Choice Harvest CEO Penny Brown Huber told the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “In this state, we’ve been great with farmers markets and with direct marketing. But that doesn’t open up larger new markets for farmers or for consumers.”

When Des Moines Public Schools came to Iowa Choice Harvest (which is 60 percent farmer owned) with a need, the company was able to work directly with a roster of farmers to meet it. “That was a big enough commitment for them to go out to their growers and say, ‘OK, we’re gonna need 25,000 pounds,’ and line up their growers for it,” Taylor explained.

Flash-freezing facilities have been called “game changers” in local food economies. Virginia’s Charlottesville and Albemarle counties received a state grant this year to develop a flash-freezing facility in central Virginia, in the hopes that it would mean a steadier flow of produce and a more stable supply, which could in turn create markets for local growers. In big agricultural economies such as Iowa and Virginia, where much of what is produced finds its way out of state, it’s a way to keep locally produced food—and locally generated dollars—in the community.

“Why would we be getting corn—as a school in central Iowa—from anywhere else than Iowa sweet corn?” Taylor asked. “When you can source something locally and support the local economy, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Taylor also thinks the existence of Iowa Choice Harvest might encourage more variety in the foods grown in the region. “It’s very hard to get a farmer in Iowa to grow something other than soybeans” or field corn, which together dominate the state’s farmland. “By opening this processing plant and getting some commitment, you can go to growers and get them to change up some of these crops. It opens the door.”

It’s the next natural step in what has been Des Moines Public School’s commitment to get students more intimately involved with their food systems. Twenty-seven of the public schools there have been working with Food Corps to bring gardens and chickens, for example, onto campuses. One school received funds to build a small kitchen for demonstrations, where teachers can integrate food into their lesson plans on fractions. Word of a composting program is in the hallways. The district also participates in School Food FOCUS, a national collaborative funded largely by the W.K. Kellogg and Kresge foundations to make sure school lunches are healthy, regionally sourced, and sustainable.

Iowa sweet corn is likely just a first step in a long-term vision. Taylor has talked with Iowa Choice Harvest about other regionally sourced foods that could be added to the schools’ menus, including carrots, asparagus, berries, and rhubarb. The “ultimate goal” would be to feature produce from the schools’ own gardens on the menus.

“That’s making it completely full cycle,” Taylor said. “That would light up the eyes of the kids. ‘Hey, we grew this squash, and now we see it on the cafeteria line.’ ”