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Colorado's Farm-To-School Takes Root, But Challenges Still Abound

Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Greeley 6 school district's nutrition services director, Jeremy West, shows off one of his 40-gallon kettles used to tranform local produce into healthy food for students.

Inside the Greeley school district's cavernous food services warehouse, nutrition service director Jeremy West leans over a 40-gallon kettle and turns a crank, showing how it tilts for easier access. The pot, empty now, will soon bubble with marinara sauce or maybe burrito filling – with some of those tomatoes or beans coming from farms less than 20 miles away.

West appreciates those giant pots, but said he wouldn't mind a couple more. Preparing food from scratch takes equipment and space. He's lucky to mostly have the facilities he needs. Many other schools that want to source fresh food from local farmers and ranchers are having a harder time.

"They may not even have a sink that's large enough to wash the produce in bulk. They don't have the industrial, commercial salad spinners. They don't have the knives. Plus, they don't necessarily have kitchen staff that were hired for their culinary skills," said Lyn Kathlene, a senior research associate at Spark Policy Institute who works with Colorado's Farm to School task force.

Supporters of the farm-to-school effort say that it provides fresher food to students while supporting local economies. The movement has grown significantly over the past decade in Colorado, and there are now 84 school districts sourcing local food in some way. That's a success, but those involved in the effort say there are a number of obstacles keeping farm-to-school from becoming a sustainable and significant part of the school food program.

Linda Stoll, who heads up Jefferson County schools nutrition program, said the decisions of the past few decades affect her ability to source locally today.

"Schools 20-plus years ago went away from cooking from scratch, they went to buying processed foods and just reheating and serving," she said.

Many even sold off facilities and warehouses they used to process food.

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
A worker inside the large warehouse facility where Greeley 6 school district prepares its school breakfasts and lunch. Many districts lack such facilities, hindering their ability to transform local produce into school lunch.

That's left Stoll without all the tools she needs to transform ingredients into meals. Particularly in Colorado, where most of the growing season happens when school is out of session, the ability to process and preserve food for later is a key aspect of making farm-to-school successful. Districts without that ability are limited on what local products they can offer.

"JeffCo doesn't have stovetops, so we can't brown ground beef, because we don't have a stovetop to cook it on," she said, as an example.

One day, Stoll hopes to have a central kitchen, with a range top, so she can cook again. For now, she's using a "creative" chef to come up with ways to work around her equipment limitations, she said.

Not Enough Cooks In The Kitchen

Credit Jeremy West
A worker prepares school lunch at the Greeley 6 school district's centralized processing facility.

At the Greeley school district facility, as Jeremy West shows off a walk-in freezer, a tennis-court sized pantry, and some new ovens, he talks about retraining his staff to handle fresh food. He recalled sourcing heads of romaine lettuce, which previously had come in pre-chopped, maybe from California. The staff had trouble washing and drying the lettuce.

"We tried to chop and process it here. And that was a disaster," West said. "We couldn't get it dry enough so it would turn brown."

Eventually, they figured out a better system, but hurdles like this are common for districts trying to convert from what's commonly called the "heat and serve" mentality.

Jefferson County's Stoll agreed. Her district, limited on its produce processing facilities, has been able to source local chicken drumsticks and beef. Training staff how to cook the meat safely, though, took effort.

"We've got a workforce that doesn't have much experience in cooking from scratch," and officials in the district were worried about food safety with raw chicken coming into the schools, she said.

So the district chose to start with drumsticks, which "felt safe to us, because they are fairly uniform in size and cook fairly evenly," said Stoll. Now, they are branching out into local beef, training workers how to cook that safely.

Convincing The Farmers

The sun beats down on row after row vegetables as Anthony Zamora's wades through about 3 acres of crops.

"We grow everything," he said. "Peppers, eggplants, squash, potatoes." He shows me tomatoes. And beets. "That's one of our biggest crops. Rainbow beets. Golden beets, red beets, candy cane beets."

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
Anthony Zamora, of Leffler Family Farms, is working to convince other farmers that selling to schools is worth the extra effort.

Leffler Family Farms, which the soft-spoken, ponytailed Zamora runs with his wife Sarah, also has about 10 acres of sweet corn and another few of dry beans, near the Northern Colorado town of Eaton. He sells these products to the Greeley 6 School District, as well as running a subscription vegetable service and vending at regional farmers markets.

Zamora is also spearheading an effort to connect more farmers with schools. It's surprisingly difficult, he's found. If a farmer can sell tomatoes for $5 a pound at market, it's hard to see the appeal of a wholesale price from a school.

Greeley's West pointed out that schools do have some discretion in what they pay, and are often able to pay a premium for local food, something farmers may not know.

"For us, it's worth it. We know where it came from, we are making relationships, it's great publicity for the farm, and we are getting produce that is great quality. It's not traveled 1,500 miles, and it is often more nutrient dense because it hasn't had to travel," said West.

Districts with processing ability can also take seconds -- fruits or vegetables that may be damaged, or cosmetically unappealing, which might provide a moneymaking option for crops that otherwise wouldn't get used, said West.

"I don't need the perfect little zucchini. I'll take the 3-foot zucchini, I'm going to grate it and puree it," said West.

Thus far, however, he's found it harder than expected to find farmers to buy from.

"To me, it would seem like people would be pounding down my door. But they're not," he said

The Paperwork Problem

Another hurdle for farmers is that of food safety regulations, which are becoming increasingly important nationally.

Schools often throw out fancy acronyms and terms that, to farmers, start to sound like too much work and hassle.

"There's this thing called a HACCP [pronounced "hassup"] plan, and that stands for a really fancy safety plan, you know. And when a farmer hears that, it's like, you know, I don't have that," said Zamora.

A lot of farmers are probably already following most of the steps in that fancy-sounding plan. But when a school hands them 40-pages of paperwork to prove it, they balk.

West, of Greeley schools, said he had worked to simplify the paperwork they give to growers. So has Durango, which has a vibrant farm-to-school effort in place, said Spark Policy's Lyn Kathlene. It's not that the extra steps farmers have to take -- like spraying down a truck bed with sanitizer -- are hard, she said. Mostly, it's fear of the unknown.

"Often then find, oh, this is not as bad as I thought it would be."

That's true for Zamora. He began farming full-time the same year Greeley ramped up its local sourcing, and the district helped him learn how to meet food safety standards along the way. The Weld County Health Department also pitched in with advice, he said.

"Without that help we wouldn't be doing that today, we wouldn't be selling to schools," Zamora said.

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
Anthony Zamora with his wife, Sarah, and their two young children. He hopes they can have healthy, local food served when they enter school.

Those in Colorado's farm-to-school movement hope to help more farmers get connected with schools; in November, after the 2014 harvest is over, they will host an event aimed at making those connections.

West said right now he gets about 20 percent of his food from local sources, but most of that is dairy, which is produced on a large scale in Weld County. He'd like to get up to half of his school food from nearby sources some day.

As for Zamora, he hopes more farmers in his area can connect with schools.

"Not just for the sake of sales, but being part of the community and providing nutritionally dense local food to the schools."

His boys are three and one, but he's already imagining them starting kindergarten.

"It would be nice to know that when they are in the school system, there is going to be more local food," he said.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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