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A Year in Review

Reaching for the stars in 2019 with our feet firmly on the ground.

We often ask ourselves what more could we be doing to move farm to school forward across our state? Each year our IFSN calendar is filled with training events, meetings, tabling at conferences and events, and online communications that share new ways to build a farm to school programs, innovative tools and opportunities to raise awareness, and build excitement and interest in farm to school activities and programming.

Well, that’s a mouthful!

It is important that we share our successes, and needs, with our network members, partner organizations, state agencies and our funders to continue to grow farm to school across Illinois. In the spirit of sharing, we are releasing our 2019 Illinois Farm to School Impact Report.

This report shares program participation statistics over a five-year period, training events and a snapshot of our work and our focus through 2019. As an organization, housed at Seven Generations Ahead in Oak Park, Ill., we also coordinate our efforts in farm to school with the Zero Waste Schools program to provide an opportunity for sites to fully visualize what a full-circle cafeteria, utilizing both farm to school and zero waste practices, can achieve. Tying sustainability programs, health initiatives and wellness policies to farm to school participation creates a more profound exposure to a healthier way of life for children just learning about local food, gardens, nature, waste management and utilization, and developing healthy, green practices for life.

We encourage all to share our report with your networks and team members. We welcome partnerships and coordination across our state to move our combined programs and initiatives forward and develop a greater reach to the children and families in Illinois.

2019 Illinois Farm to School Network Impact Report

Crunch success in Illinois!

On Oct. 11, participants across the state all “crunched” together at noon for the 2018 Great Lakes Great Apple Crunch. The event was part of the multistate National Farm to School Month. The diverse mix of registered sites included schools, garden and after school programs, juvenile justice centers, residential programs and other organizations.

Illinois topped the region in celebrating local apples with 582,711 total crunches across our state. That’s 1,226 individual sites with 1,178 preschool crunchers; 570,115 kindergarten through grade -12  students children, and 11,418 adults all crunching into locally grown apples. Across the region, in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, a combined total of 1,563,153 crunchers participated. You can view the official 2018 Illinois Great Apple Crunch report and all previous reports (2015-2017) here.

Each state’s Farm to School Network facilitates its Great Lakes Great Apple Crunch. The Illinois Farm to School Network launched the first Illinois Great Apple Crunch in 2015, and the celebration has continued to grow each year:

  •   2015: 35,000 Illinois crunchers
  •   2016: 339,103 Illinois crunchers
  •   2017: 469,848 Illinois crunchers
  •   2018: 583,925 Illinois crunchers

The Crunch in Illinois grew by 24.2 percent  from 2017 to 2018. Next year, we anticipate Illinois’ participation to surpass 600,000 students and adults.

Local and regional apple purchases have grown as well. Sites purchased local apples through their foodservice or directly from local vendors.

Some local suppliers included Get Fresh Produce, Inc. in Bartlett, which sourced apples from Rendleman Orchards in Alto Pass, and Flamm Orchards in Cobden to supply 60,240 pounds of Illinois Apples to 310 schools (an increase from last year of 9,880 pounds and 57 schools). Cristina Foods, Inc. in Chicago distributed approximately 8,000 pounds of Michigan McIntosh apples. Kuipers Family Farm in Maple Park supplied one school with 648 pounds of Fuji, Empire and Jonathan apples. Central Illinois Produce, Vermilion Valley sold 4,000 pounds of Illinois apples for the Crunch; and FarmLogix moved 167,919 pounds of apples from Michigan and Indiana to multiple school buyers during Crunch Week.

Sites employed a variety of tactics in their celebrations. They had participants bit into local apples together in cafeterias, hung up new annual Illinois Great Apple Crunch posters, used apple-based recipes and taste tests, got local media involved, and much more!

  • Oak Park-River Forest High School District 200 created a contest for students to guess apple varieties;
  • Oak Park Day Nursery shared a lesson with Sandy Noel, a visiting food educator, and created fun “apple spiders” and served cinnamon apple chips made from local apples.  
  • A teacher at Bethel Grade School donned an apple costume and handed out apples at lunch.
  • Students at Mooseheart Child and City School created their own Apple Crunch posters.
  • Lewistown School District 97 featured a taste test in the cafeteria with different varieties from their hometown orchard.
  • Chicago Public School Luke O’Toole Elementary featured a taste test with middle school students who ranked their favorites.
  • Beaupre Elementary School had a visit from the USDA’s Office of Community Food Systems’ director and Midwest Farm-to-School Regional Lead (see more here).
  • Wheeling Community Consolidated School District 21 celebrated with a handmade photo frame.

IFSN staff joined two sites on Crunch Day to help celebrate and broadcast: the Oak Park Day Nursery and East Aurora Preschool. Other sites, such as St. Francis Solanus in Quincy, and Buncombe Grade School in Vienna, also shared their Crunch online and with local media outlets.

Registered sites shared their photos of all things Crunch with us and on social media using the hashtags #GreatAppleCrunch, #ILapplecrunch, and #F2Smonth. You can still your Crunch photos with us on the “Send us Photos” tab on our Apple Crunch page.

Thank you for making this our biggest Crunch ever, and see you next October for the 2019 Crunch!

A change of season and an opportunity for change.

When you choose to make a change, accepting the work is the first step.
Change is not an easy proposition to make. It involves planning, a period of trial and error, and a period of adjustment and acceptance. Then, you rinse and repeat.

When a manager or director of a child feeding program chooses to make a significant change in their program, the prospect of an increased workload, combined with the effort needed to make successful and cost-effective changes can feel arduous. Making changes to a prescriptive feeding program involves a series of decisions, which at any time can cause a domino effect, and in short, nothing less than a disaster. This apprehension of uncharted waters and the daunting work ahead can bring about what I refer to as the false start syndrome.

Enlightened managers who want to shift the balance on the lunch tray and create a healthier way to engage kids at mealtime can sometimes become a deer in the headlights once they’ve made the commitment.
This happens more than one would think.                                                                                        

As program manager for the Illinois Farm to School Network, I see false start syndrome happen to the most determined managers in feeding sites large and small. As a former school food service director, I understand the immense workload tied to the overwhelming program regulations and requirements.

This is not Grandma’s kitchen, nor is the process of program management open for interpretation.

Nevertheless, I chose to make changes to my school programs and trudged through the extra workload to make those changes successful.

I’m not saying this was an easy thing to do. In fact, it took two years of trial and error and rewriting my original plans to create the program I believed my kids deserved. My vision didn’t stop at procuring locally and posting cafeteria signage. I wanted more.

It took months of training and elevating all of my staff to take on these changes. After all, change touches everyone and everything. From the lunchline computer operators to the janitorial staff who maintained the commons area, to the many kitchen staff and the van drivers delivering to satellite sites, to the kids themselves. Everything, attitudes and perceptions alike, eventually changed.
How did I do it?

I got past that scary starting point. I jumped in and developed a plan of attack to bring in local, whole foods from area producers and begin to cook fresh foods once again.

It took longer days to visualize, research, and write down the processes needed to begin scratch cooking in my kitchens.

It took multiple seasonal bids and conversations with local growers to develop our local foods procurement process.

It took fundraising and school policy changes to make food service the authority on food again.

It took training, and then more training for staff.

It took dedicated staff members and an even more dedicated administrator to see this vision become a reality.

It took patience and it took time.

I shared my vision with everyone. My then determined kitchen staff went from opening boxes and cans and loading ovens to cooking recipes in tilt skillets and floor kettles.

There were months of adjustments and what we commonly referred to as the rollercoaster of food waste- first rising frighteningly, and then dropping like a stone leaving us stomachless, dizzy, and giddy.

My staff persevered through late afternoon meetings and yet more adjustments to our routine and process, rearranging cafe service lines and incorporating self-service everywhere possible to free them up for valuable prep and cooking time.

Eventually, with our feet under us, my newly minted staff began sharing recipes from treasured family cookbooks for consideration and conversion into the program. They ran taste tests and recipe surveys with a sense of pride that previously was not evident. They took possession of a burgeoning program that involved the students, the staff, and families at home. They truly owned it.

And, our kids? As we reduced the frequency of exposure to heavily processed foods, their taste for whole, fresh foods grew. Parents took notice. Staff lined up with our kids to buy lunch. And, neighboring districts began to ask “how”?

I got past my initial false start syndrome.
I’m so glad I did.

Playing With Your Food

You can lead a student to the broccoli, but you can’t make him eat it. Or, can you?

Summer is winding down and once again, schools across America are opening their doors, and their cafeterias. As school food service professionals begin the arduous process of re-opening kitchens, training staff and ordering food supplies, decisions are being finalized for breakfast and lunch menus. Calculations on nutrient content and required USDA meal components will be completed for each food item added to a meal, by the day and cumulatively for the week for multiple grade levels. It may sound like a lot of work and a bit overcomplicated, but these calculations are all part of the requirements of the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs.

Whether the lunch program director is a registered dietician utilizing nutrition software, or a head cook in a small school district working the numbers “old school” with the USDA Food Buying Guide and a calculator, these final calculations have a lot to do with what is on that lunch tray. Veggies are now grouped by color based on nutrition breakdowns, and come with a required portion size based on student grade levels and weekly required servings. Fruits, protein, grains and milk are equally addressed. School lunch nutrition has evolved into a series of calculated formulas and checkboxes.

When you hear about students throwing away required vegetables, as well as other meal components, it is of no big surprise to anyone working in the school kitchen. Kids are being required to take food items they may not like, have no interest in, or even recognize on a daily basis.

So, just what have school lunch programs discovered as the dust settles on the new lunch requirements?

You can lead a student to the broccoli, but you definitely cannot make him eat it.                                               Unless you educate him, that is.

On a bright, sunny day in August, at an urban school district in Northeastern Illinois, kindergarten through fifth grade students experienced an introduction to a program that will make an impact on their lunches throughout the school year, Illinois Harvest of the Month. The response was overwhelmingly positive, as these students experienced local produce at the height of its season on their lunch trays. 

That isn’t the full story, however. The part that makes this program so successful is the food education and fun that provides students with the ability to interact and learn about their food.

On this day at Haskell Elementary, a school in Rockford Public Schools District 205, Harvest of the Month education began as each student shucked an ear of fresh, local sweet corn on the playground during morning recess. As students furiously tore away the deep green husks and battled the fine silk guarding those sweet kernels of corn, they learned fun facts about the vegetable. They learned about where the corn was grown, and why there is so much “hair” on each cob.

The students also learned that for each kernel of corn there is a matching strand of silk, and there is a correlation between the two. Students giggled and proudly displayed their cleaned ears of corn before depositing them in hotel pans for further cleaning by food service staff. More than one child asked if they could place their name on that ear of corn, they were so proud of the job they did. Their reward was the promise of grilled sweet corn, local watermelon and a “Chicago made” hot dog on their lunch tray the following day.

You may be thinking this was an easy menu for kids to accept. Nevertheless, what you should take into account is that most of these kids have little experience with fresh vegetables in their raw form. They have precious little knowledge about how food is grown and limited experience in tasting fresh vegetables just one day after they are picked. Today’s students do not know that vegetables, like many foods, have a history. And, that there are uses for vegetables beyond consumption. Knowledge like this can make a difference when it comes time for that student to taste a new or unknown food.

 Rockford District 205 is preparing to orchestrate many lessons about locally sourced veggies throughout the school year. Illinois Harvest of the Month gives them the tools to incorporate local veggies into their lunch program with a side of fun and much needed education. The food service staff is excited and committed to improving the health of Rockford students through food education and new experiences with those unloved vegetables.

How will they know all their efforts to improve student acceptance of required healthy veggies are working?
The proof will be on the tray.