Floyd Davis didn’t know what he was getting into when he took a call from Alison Patrick at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. What he did know was that since he had returned to farming, he had developed a reputation for having the most delicious and beautiful vegetables for sale at the Tremont Farmers Market. And he knew that his son was just starting school where the food was less than nutritious and fresh. He also knew after more than 10 years in corporate business, farming was his calling. He had to find a way to make a living for his family doing what he loved.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Trumbull County, Floyd experienced firsthand the dramatic changes that occurred in food production in Ohio and across the nation since the 1960s. As the infrastructure that supported small dairy farms gave way to large confinement dairies, Floyd’s parents, along with thousands of Ohio farm families, switched from dairy farming to raising corn and soybeans. Floyd put himself through college raising hay and left the farm for a career in business. There seemed to be no future for him on the farm.
But he couldn’t stay away. He bought a five-acre farm next to his parents’ farm in Kinsman and starting thinking about ways to turn his love of farming into a full-time job. From an August farm stand in the front of his house heaped with sweet corn, to a weekly summer spot at a couple of farmers markets, the move to full-time farming was becoming a possibility. Floyd had successfully won a USDA EQIP grant to build a hoop house in 2009. This allowed him to extend his growing season, eventually almost through the winter.
Having added chefs to his customer base, Floyd calculated how much more revenue it would take for him to leave his day job and commit to farming full time. He was hoping that a chance to sell products to schools might make the difference. So, when a survey from the Cuyahoga County Board of Health arrived asking about his interest in supplying fresh vegetables to schools, he responded with enthusiasm. He knew he had the product. With his new hoop houses, he knew he could offer a winter supply.
Alison was calling because she had read his survey answers and wanted to meet. The Cuyahoga County Board of Health started surveying the food programs in all the schools in the county in 2009. National and state health organizations concerned about the rapid increase in childhood obesity were encouraging local health departments to evaluate food in addition to exercise programs in schools.
The South-Euclid Lyndhurst school district looked like the ideal place to roll out a Farm to Fork initiative. Unlike the majority of schools in Cuyahoga County, the South Euclid-Lyndhurst district had hired an outside food service provider, AVI Food-systems, to improve the quality of the food in the schools. The district’s newly hired food service director, Kevin Needham, was an experienced chef, serious about providing fresh vegetables in school lunches.
On a hot afternoon in August 2010, Alison, Kevin, and Floyd sat on Floyd’s deck overlooking fields and hoop houses trying to figure out how to make this happen. They could start with lettuce and maybe some apples. Because the kitchen staff was already sorting through fresh heads of lettuce, getting it from Floyd would not add too much labor. Apples were easy. They could start with one school, maybe once a week. It was a long drive for a little produce, but Floyd was already traveling to the Tremont Farmers Market on Tuesday afternoon. He could make a drop on the way.
A small grant from Whole Foods made it possible for the Greenview Upper Elementary School, where they decided to start the program, to buy a Cambro© salad bar. When the students saw the rolling salad bar parked by the cafeteria, the teachers engaged their curiosity by inviting them to guess what it was. When bright green spinach leaves, slices of yellow peppers, luscious red cherry tomatoes, and crisp yellow, orange, and purple carrots appeared in the bowls, their curiosity quickly turned to excitement.
The experiment using Floyd’s fresh vegetables was happening at about the same time as Jamie Oliver, the British celebrity chef, failed to change eating preferences of children in West Virginia. So it was not without some anxiety that Kevin watched to see the students’ reactions. Floyd was there too, by Skype.
The kids couldn’t wait to try. They went back for more. A student said with a grin, “I can’t believe I’m eating leaves.”
Kevin took pictures of the salad bar before and after to document just how enthusiastically they tackled Floyd’s produce.
The word quickly spread to the school administration. The slow rollout was immediately overthrown. The superintendent wanted Farm to Fork in every school in the system. Luckily for Floyd, supplying the vegetables was not a problem, and a couple of his neighbors stood ready to help if needed. But for Kevin, there were significant management issues. Changing the lunch voucher systems at all six schools, getting salad bars, training his 28 staff members at the schools, and more importantly, getting the cooperation of the school employees who prepare and serve the food, fondly known as “the lunch ladies.”
Enter Sue Howe. A 26-year veteran of school food service, Sue immediately saw something in Farm to Fork she had not seen in the school cafeteria: sparkling fresh spinach so green and tender; kids enjoying fresh vegetables they had never seen before; and kids learning to eat with utensils. It was truly a joy to present the salad bar, even though it added to the work.
“Getting produce locally actually cuts down prep time because everything goes into the salad bar, even the spinach stems,” explained Sue, “There is so little waste and vegetables last so much longer.”
Having Floyd come into the kitchen to demonstrate knife skills and talk about the flavor and nutrition of his products made it an adventure. Each week there was something new. By November, all six South Euclid schools were receiving a total of about 300 pounds of produce per week. During the 2012–13 school year, every school in the district received fresh produce five days a week. About 25% of the reimbursable food entrées were salad bar. Some students even stopped packing lunches every day to choose the salad bar.
In 2013, the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Farm to Fork program was recognized by the National Association of County and City Health Officials as a Model Practice for the nation. Being the first Farm to Fork program implemented in Northeast Ohio has drawn a lot of attention and several additional benefits to the district. Grants from the USDA and the Gund Foundation have made possible gardens and a renovated greenhouse at Brush High School.
Some of the students who work after school and during the summer on those gardens have visited Floyd’s Red Basket Farm to learn about hoop house growing. Brush High School acquired a large flash freezer so excess fresh vegetables can be preserved for the winter. All six of the schools in the district now have the mobile salad bar units. And, of course, students are adding fresh nutritious vegetables to their diet. Kevin said, “We are expanding, looking for sources of grass-fed beef, pastured poultry, whole grains, you name it, we want it locally.”
For Alison and the Board of Health, this is a tremendous step forward in the national agenda to combat childhood obesity. For Kevin, an experienced chef with many years in restaurants, it is a special joy that makes his job rewarding. “As a chef, I love the challenge of preparing this food from scratch,” he explained. “It makes my job so much more rewarding seeing the reaction of the kids to really good food.”
And for Floyd, it may be the tipping point that makes farming full time possible. He sincerely hopes that Farm to Fork will take off at other school districts.
But Kevin is quick to add, “It’s a great program, but no one can take my Floyd, he’s my farmer.”
Want to find out more about how to start a Farm to School program in your community? In Cuyahoga County you can call 216.201.2000 x1513 or visit CCBH.net/farm-to-school or FarmtoSchool.OSU.edu.