CSD’s Farm to School program changes definition of traditional cafeteria foodThe salad bar at Westchester Elementary. Photo provided to Decaturish by Allison Goodman.
This story has been updated.
By Dena Mellick, Associate editor
At a City Schools of Decatur School Board meeting in August, school board members commended School Nutrition Director Allison Goodman for her work in implementing the Farm to School program.
Goodman wheeled in a cart with food samples, which the board ate during the meeting.
“Ms. Goodman, this was such a tasty treat,” said board member Annie Caiola. “I want to thank you for having that open mind and including our community as you develop the menu. You’ve just done a phenomenal job, and the word on the street is that we have some pretty tasty food in our cafeteria, so thank you very much for that.”
“You’ve come a long way baby,” board member Bernadette Seals said. “Makes me wish I was going to be at school lunch tomorrow.”
But Goodman will be the first to tell you that it’s been a group effort to change the meals at Decatur City Schools.
“It really started out of a group of parents at College Heights years ago, right after the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center opened,” Goodman said. “It was a group of parents wanting to talk about fresher, healthier food for the children.”
“The Wylde Center came in at that point and said, we’ve been doing this type of work in the schools for many years,” said Stephanie Van Parys, Director of the Wylde Center. “We never called it Farm to School – it was called environmental education. … It was in 2009 the school board approved the plan. At that point, it was like now you can officially make the changes you want to make and we support it.”
Some changes started as baby steps, and others happened quickly.
“We had the grab-and-go line, which was like à la carte items – french fries, cookies, ice cream – all the bad things that we love to eat – that was one of the first steps,” Goodman said. “We did away with the à la carte line at the high school and replaced it with fresh to-go – healthier à la carte choices.”
At first, the changes were a bit of a shock to students.
“Overnight, the kids come back to school, and they are like, ‘what do you mean no french fries? What do you mean no cookies, no chicken sandwich every day? No pizza?’” Goodman said. “We had really negative responses. It was bad for a while, but they adjusted.”
And it wasn’t just the students who had to adjust. The kitchen staff had to learn to prepare lunches in a whole new way.
“They had never dealt with winter squash before,” Goodman said. “They called me and they said ‘what do we do with this?’”
“I remember we had bok choy,” said Ana Kucelin, CSD Menu and Wellness Specialist. “They had never seen bok choy.”
“They are learning right along with the kids,” Goodman said. “It’s a learning process for all of us.”
But soon both the staff and the students were on board with the new menus in all nine CSD schools.
Van Parys said the Wylde Center conducted its first taste test in 2010 with students at Oakhurst Elementary. The Wylde Center had planted kale with the students and used the leafy vegetable for the taste test.
“The principal said those kids are not going to eat that kale,” said Van Parys. “We sautéed it, and we served it, and there were kids coming back for five and six servings. The stuff was gone.”
The program has evolved along the way. A consultant was brought in to help streamline preparation.
“He gave us some suggestions on how to get from where we were to making from scratch, because that would take a lot of staff training and some reorganizing in the kitchen with equipment,” Kucelin said.
They also implemented a “Produce of the Month,” like okra in October.
In addition to the salad bar and healthy à la carte items, students at Renfroe Middle School and Decatur High can order smoothies on Tuesdays. There is also a gluten-free option every day. Goodman said currently about 48 percent of CSD students purchase lunch through the school system each day.
The Farm to School program goes beyond lunchtime. The Wylde Center works with students to plant gardens and teach them about produce. The changes to the school cafeterias have been so impactful that one parent wanted to create a video to show what students are now eating.
Clare Schexnyder and her husband wrote and shot a video showing the evolution of the program and the fresh choices the students now have.
Schexnyder, who is on the Farm to School committee, said in an email, “even though I knew changes had been made I was blown away by all the fresh fruits and veggies and scratch recipes we saw in the CSD kitchens.”
And the recognition is coming from outside the school system as well.
The CSD nutrition department just received a Golden Radish award, given to school districts doing “extraordinary work in farm to school.”
CSD was awarded gold, the highest level, for featuring locally grown produce 105 times in school meals during the 2014-15 school year and for having edible school gardens at all nine schools. The Golden Radish website noted that more than 60 “standards-based farm to school lessons were taught to students in classrooms and school gardens through a partnership with the Wylde Center.” CSD and the Wylde Center received the award at the State Capitol on October 7.
On Wednesday, November 4, from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., The Wylde Center and the Farm to School program are raising money with “Fall Dine Out.” The Wylde Center website says, “Dine in or take out from any participating restaurant and a portion of your purchase will go towards Decatur Farm to School.” Participating restaurants include Cakes & Ale, The Iberian Pig, Farm Burger, Leon’s, and more.
Goodman said the changes to the school nutrition program have been a direct result of community support like the Fall Dine Out, in addition to help provided by CSD parents and the Wylde Center.
“Nobody can individually take credit for it,” Goodman said. “It’s a community-driven and supported project.”
Update: An earlier version of the story quoted Ms. Van Parys as saying the school board implemented the Farm to School program in 2010. Ms. Van Parys said she misspoke and it was actually 2009 that the program was approved. Her quote has been updated to reflect this.