Put Local On Your Tray

Put Local On Your Tray (Or Plate) In April

Put Local on Your Tray is a farm-to-school program helping Connecticut schools serve and celebrate regionally grown food. Even if you’re not a school, they have some advice for getting local onto your plate this season.

spinach and greens being grown in greenhouse
Photo: Molly Deegan

Days are getting slightly warmer and longer, the breeze is sharp, and the land is both awakened and nourished by fresh spring rain. Farmers are in a busy period of transition, from indoor planning and preparing for the height of summer – to the beginning stages of planting outdoors – making sure everything is ready to go. While there may not be an abundance of produce to choose from this month, there still are some special products to take advantage of for their especially sweet and distinct flavors of spring that they offer. For instance, mixed greens!

Spinach is our suggested local item to look out for – according to our Tray team Farmer Liaison, Shannon. After a long winter, the sugars stored in it’s leaves give it flavor hard to find any other time of year. Seen below, are rows of sweet greens growing at Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge.

The First HardCORE CT Apple Challenge

The First HardCORE CT Apple Challenge with Put Local On Your Tray!

hardcore apple challengeOctober is special for a few reasons. Everyone is getting back in the swing of things at school, the foliage outstanding, and the many varieties of delicious crisp apples are ripening atop trees in orchards across the state. The combination makes a perfect time of year to celebrate National Farm to School Month, CT Grown for CT Kids Week, and a new campaign known as the HardCORE CT Apple Challenge  coordinated by Put Local On Your Tray to celebrate CT grown products, and continuously encourage the importance and connectivity of food education. Put Local on Your Tray is a collaborative Farm to School project that assists interested Connecticut school districts to serve, educate, and celebrate regionally grown produce.

The campaign coordinated by Put Local On Your Tray was made public to anyone who wanted to participate and utilize the resources. All schools and school districts in Connecticut were encouraged to participate by sourcing local apples during the month of October, and placing signage so students and staff know where they came from. For students to take the challenge, there were three ways to participate. First, you could eat a CT Grown apple all the way down to it’s core. Second, you could try two different types of CT Grown apples and compare tastes. Third, you could take a trip to a local apple orchard to see how they really grow. Or even better, all three!

On the ground, with reports from our partners at FoodCorps Connecticut, there were so many different ways CT kids celebrated the HardCORE CT Apple Challenge. There was New Britain’s Gaffney Elementary Garden Club students challenging each other to see who could eat a local apple from Belltown Orchards in South Glastonbury totally down to the core, after learning all about the importance of seeds. At Meriden public schools, students enjoyed a special afternoon comparing the tastes of Fuji and Paula Red apples and voted at lunch what they liked best, realizing that not all apples are exactly the same. There was a field trip taken to Auerfarm in Bloomfield with Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, where students had the opportunity to pick and taste some of the apples grown right there on the farm, solidifying their understanding of how exactly apples come to be. Overall, there is a newfound appreciation going around in our schools for an idyllic CT crop – the apple.

There was lots of support from many partner organizations including the Connecticut Farm to School Collaborative, who helped create the concept of the campaign. The Collaborative consists of a group of nonprofit and state-agency representatives working to advance farm to school at the state level through policy, communications, and programming. The CT Apple Marketing Board, the USDA, and FoodCorps Connecticut all promoted the HardCORE Apple Campaign, with the promotion excitingly gaining national recognition in the USDA online newsletter, The Dirt, as something to look check out for the month of October.

Mike Koch, Food Service Director for New Britain Public Schools, is pleased to have the materials provided by the Local Tray Program. “We appreciate the efforts of the various groups that assist us with marketing and promotions of our locally sourced products. UConn Extension and FoodCorps have been integral partners to promote activities such as taste tests and local produce celebrations. We have been able to get students to try and appreciate new and different foods, and to step outside of their comfort zone. When we did an applesauce taste test using apples grown from Belltown Orchards in Glastonbury, the students began to realize this is food grown close to their neighborhood. When they make this connection, everyone wins; the student, the food service department, the school district, and the farm.”

Mike is just one of the Food Service Directors who has signed up to take the local pledge for his district this year. There are currently 30 districts that signed up so far to participate in the Put Local on Your Tray Program for the 2017-18 school year all over the state. The program is open to any interested school district, charter school, or private school. Go online to sign up to take the pledge to have at least one local Tray day this year. Sign up today if your school hasn’t already! We are gaining momentum and have many developments in store for this year, including two new poster designs to be released online soon! For more information after this date, please contact molly.putlocalonyourtray@gmail.com.

To stay informed with what is happening with the Tray project yourself, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter. You can also Like us on Facebook or follow us on Instagram @putlocalonyourtray. For more information please visit http://putlocalonyourtray.uconn.edu or call 860-870-6932. Put Local On Your Tray is a project of UConn Extension, in partnership with the CT State Department of Education, FoodCorps Connecticut, and New England Dairy & Food Council (NEDFC).

Keep on crunching, Connecticut!

Put Local on Your Tray

carrot posterTo our neighbors across the ocean, lunch in American schools is evidence of our culinary inferiority. The fact that one third of the nation’s children are growing up overweight and obese leads many to point a finger at school food. But in reality, the age of sloppy joes and tater tots is steadily giving way to salad bars, sweet potato fries, and vegetable chili. Major changes and healthier regulations for school meals that began in 2014 have shifted the menu toward whole grains, less sugar, less sodium, and more vegetables and fruit.

In fact, school meals are a vital part of a federal child nutrition strategy that provides healthy food to children and helps fight hunger and obesity. With the new emphasis on healthier meals, a wave of innovative efforts to add fresh, locally grown ingredients have emerged across the nation. These farm-to-school initiatives typically include school gardens, field trips to farms, nutrition education, as well as menus that feature seasonal flavors.

In Connecticut, the Put Local on Your Tray pilot project (Tray Project) helps Connecticut school districts source, serve, and celebrate a different local food product each month. Led by UConn Extension in close partnership with the Connecticut State Department of Education, the Tray Project has developed promotional materials to support school districts willing to feature one locally grown and seasonal product each month.

The Tray Project uses alluring and vibrant marketing materials including posters, stickers, and newsletter templates to educate the students about featured local foods. Using fun and engaging food puns such as “Kale, Yeah!—Don’t kale my vibe” or “Oh Snap!—I’m a Lean Green Bean Machine” have been key to generating a sense of fun and celebration around the new school lunch menu. The Tray Project assists participating school districts in building connections with local farms, sourcing local produce, and ensuring that cafeteria staff has what they need in order to process and serve fresh produce.

“This program has proved to be an invaluable component of our educational efforts at Middletown Public Schools to connect our students to local farms and agriculture while promoting overall wellness to enhance and maximize student achievement,” states Ava McGlew, MS, RD, CD-N, Food Service Director Middletown Public Schools.

Unlike similar ‘Harvest of the Month’ programs from other states, the Tray Project does not specify a month that each product should be used. This approach recognizes the true seasonality of produce young leaders for a year of paid public service building healthy school environments in limited resource communities. FoodCorps members build school gardens, teach nutrition and cooking, and help bring locally grown ingredients into the cafeteria.

“When kids have an opportunity to learn and engage with fruits and vegetables in a positive way, they are much more likely to eat them. “in Connecticut (e.g. kale is available from August through December in our state) and gives more flexibility to the school food service director who is making decisions about when to purchase and use a featured local ingredient.

Program Coordinator Dana Stevens and Outreach Coordinator Catherine Hallisey are currently working with four school districts including: Windham, East Hartford, Middletown, and Deep River. There are plans to expand to 15 districts for the 2016-2017 school year.

Over 2,000 students have participated in an interactive component of the program known as Local Tray Days. The Tray Project works with school districts to select one date for a cafeteria taste-test using kid-friendly recipes, and a second date, when the sampled local item is incorporated into the menu. Recipes include cider-glazed squash, kale chips, berry blast smoothies, and squash apple bisque.

“When kids have an opportunity to learn and engage with fruits and vegetables in a positive way, they are much more likely to eat them,” Dana explains. Students are asked to vote on what they thought of the local featured item. They can respond with one of the three options, tried it, liked it, or loved it.

According to USDA, schools report that farm to school programs can increase the number of students purchasing school breakfast and lunch, improve consumption of healthier foods at school, and reduce plate waste. There are 187 school districts in Connecticut, and 74 percent completed the USDA Farm to School Census. Of those, 70 percent are currently participating in farm to school activities, and another 19 percent have plans to start in the future.

Programs like Put Local on Your Trayare an easy way to bring more local foods into the cafeteria. By focusing on one local product each month, farmers can plan ahead to grow the food needed, and food service directors can build that local product into school menus. More local foods in schools results in more support for our farmers. This means more of our dollars stay in the community, and local economies are strengthened.

The Tray Project is a component of UConn Extension’s outreach and education on sustainable food systems, led by Associate Extension Educator Jiff Martin.

School Districts Invited to “Put Local on Your Tray” This Fall

carrot posterJust in time for National Farm To School Month in October, UConn Extension and its partners at the Connecticut State Department of Education, FoodCorps Connecticut, and the New England Dairy and Food Council are excited to announce an opportunity to participate in a new program called “Put Local On Your Tray”.

Put Local On Your Tray promotes local food in Connecticut schools. Participants receive support and materials that help school districts plan, serve, and celebrate locally grown food. “When kids have an opportunity to learn and engage with fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables in a positive way, they are much more likely to eat them,” shared Dana Stevens, Program Director.

In the 2014-2015 school year, schools in Connecticut spent $7,244,580 on local food, and 70% of school districts that responded to the 2015 Farm to School Census offered farm-to-school programming; that’s 97 districts, 706 schools, and 355,489 students! Schools report that farm to school programs can increase the number of students purchasing school breakfast and lunch, improve consumption of healthier foods at school, and reduce plate waste.

Local procurement can be integrated into all types of child nutrition programs, including: breakfast, lunch, after-school snack, supper, and summer meals. Connecticut also celebrates CT Grown for CT Kids Week from October 3 – 7th, offering schools another opportunity to take one small step for farm to school.

Put Local On Your Tray has proved to be an invaluable component of our educational efforts at Middletown Public Schools to connect our students to local farms and agriculture while promoting overall wellness to enhance and maximize student achievement, states Ava McGlew, MS, RD, CD-N, Food Service Director Middletown Public Schools.

UConn Extension has developed posters, stickers, newsletters, and recipes to support school districts in connecting students to fresh, seasonal foods. Contact your school administrator or food service director to encourage participation in this new program.

Highlights of Extension

Highlights cover

Learn how UConn Extension is tying research to real life in your community through our 2015 Highlights of Extension.