UConn Extension is connecting schools and local farms with their “Put Local on Your Tray” program which is designed to help K-12 public school districts “source, serve and celebrate” fresh, local Connecticut-grown products in their cafeterias.
The program, which began working with school districts in 2015, supports school food service directors in purchasing and integrating the food into their cafeterias, as well as celebrating local food with taste tests, according to the program’s website.
Jiff Martin, sustainable food systems educator and program director of Put Local on Your Tray, said the program has 26 school districts participating this academic school year. The list of schools in the cohort model this year can be found on their website.
When asked about the goals for the program in the future, Martin said they hope to help districts maximize their spending dollars and provide additional opportunities for students to enjoy locally grown food.
“We aim to help each district maximize their spending of federal and state dollars that were recently allocated for the purchase of locally grown food for child nutrition meal programs,” Martin said. “This means helping them connect with local growers, experiment with seasonal recipes, conduct taste tests for students and inviting the community into the cafeteria to taste the flavors of locally grown.”
Abby DuBois, the campaigns coordinator for Put Local on Your Tray, explained how they provide food service directors and educators with resources to use in their classrooms. Their four seasonal campaigns, “It’s Crunch Time”, “Rooting for Winter”, “The Great Smoothie Slurp” and “Dip into Summer” encompass the crops grown in all the seasons. In addition, they are working on a new bonus series of campaigns: “Native American FoodWays”, to honor local Native foods throughout the year.
A main component of the program is taste tests, where schools are able to procure different types of locally grown foods for students to try. DuBois explained how students are able to try the food and vote on whether they “Loved it, Liked it, or Tried it.”
“The most important part of taste tests and my work as a whole is the ability to give students the opportunity to provide safe and honest feedback about the food they like, the food they don’t like and the food they want to see served in their cafeteria,” DuBois said.
Over the summer, they partnered with the Connecticut Department of Education and the Summer Meals Program to run taste tests at school summer programs. DuBois said the past two summers, 10 districts participated in the program. Now that the new school year is underway, they continue to do taste tests at school events.
DuBois described her experience at the Plainville Community Schools’ parent teacher conferences, where they were able to offer students and families fresh bell peppers from Karabin Farms with a choice of ranch or homemade dill dip. They were able to share the Put Local on Your Tray pledge and the feedback from parents was overwhelmingly positive.
“I had several parents come up to me and tell me that their children, who were happily munching on the fresh bell peppers, had never before eaten a vegetable that wasn’t hidden in their food,” DuBois said.
In addition to positive feedback from food service directors, educators, students and parents, DuBois shared that farmers are also seeing tremendous benefits from the program as well.
DuBois explained how schools can provide farmers with a consistent and continuous source of income. Farmers are able to take those funds and continue to grow more food and expand their farmland.
“We love our farmers, and Put Local on Your Tray creates just as much technical support [for] farmers as we do for Food Service Directors,” DuBois said.
The program also creates guides and hosts events for farmers to ensure they have the necessary information and certificates to communicate with school food service directors. DuBois said last year they held a “Producer Training” where local farmers were able to learn about school meal patterns and food safety requirements. This year, they are hosting multiple “Chop-Peel-Dice” events where food service directors and farmers are able to meet and network together.
To find out what farms are interested in selling to schools, visit the “CT Farm to School Directory” on their website.
Put Local on Your Tray is a part of the UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research. UConn Extension is composed of faculty in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources who help deliver programs and research across Connecticut.