October is National Farm to School Month and Essex Food Hub is excited to announce a $100,000 grant award from the United States Department of Agriculture Farm to School Grant program. EFH is one of 103 awardees across the nation in this celebratory 10th year of the program, and among just 16 selected in the Northeast region.
Funds from the grant will be used over the next twelve months to expand and improve local food access for our North Country schools. It will allow EFH to invest in new equipment to support their minimal processing of fruits and vegetables—peeling, dicing, shredding, and/or freezing produce.
In early 2022, Champlain Valley Educational Services released a pilot Geographic Preference bid. The pilot encourages schools to purchase local products by awarding extra points to these items during the formal process of choosing food vendors in a given academic year.
The 2022-2023 school year pilot bid was successful, leading to continuation of the Geographic Preference bid for 2023-2024. In just two years the bid has proven to increase the amount of local food purchased by participating schools and formalized Farm to School programming in the region.
EFH participated in the 2022-2023 pilot bid, supplying 27,000 pounds of local food that fed nearly 6,000 students at the six school districts involved. This school year, the food hub expects to keep pace with the growth of schools signing onto the bid and double the amount of food they provide. The grant’s support to increase their minimal processing capabilities will be key to meeting the growing demand.
Under the grant, EFH, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Essex County, and CVES will work together to determine additional ways the food hub can support Farm to School success, including identifying local products most needed and wanted by the schools, or those able to be substituted easily for non-local products they currently purchase, that the food hub can procure.
“Nine of the 12 bid schools are approved for the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which allows high-poverty schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students,” shared Lindsay Willemain, Executive Director of EFH. “Schools are a critical avenue for both building broad access to nutritious foods in our rural community—where many children experience food insecurity at home or live in food deserts without access to healthy foods—and reaching all students regardless of their income.”
The grant will help EFH better fill these gaps. In doing so, they are not only helping to bring more nutritious food to more schools, but supporting our local food system and its farmers with increased purchasing, and our local economy by keeping food dollars here in our community.
“This year, a particularly striking observation revolves around the shortage of labor for food processing within our educational institutions,” stated Julie Holbrook, Shared Food Services Director at CVES. “Nearly every school is grappling with understaffing- and at a time when we have seen a significant increase in consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables with our investments in growing Farm to School. Ensuring that items are pre-processed will enable us to maintain our commitment to offering a diverse array of fresh fruits and vegetables daily, upholding our high standards.”
In addition to processing local foods, EFH plays an important role in Farm to School by connecting schools and local farms: it provides an online ordering system, where schools can purchase multiple farmer’s products in one place, and provides delivery across our rural region.
EFH estimates supplying 54,000 pounds of local food, feeding close to 12,000 students and distributing weekly throughout the 12 districts participating this year. With schools increasingly interested in purchasing that are not part of this formal bid system, the student numbers could reach 16,000 or more.
Essex Food Hub is a nonprofit food hub forging pathways toward a just and sovereign food system in the North Country. It helps local farmers access markets and supports community food access through partnership programs like Farm to School and Food as Medicine.