Fresh Food from Farm to School 

Building community connections between local farmers and schools to provide fresh food and better nutrition

Colorado farmers and ranchers produce some of the best food in the world, yet getting that same healthy food onto the menus in local schools can be a challenge.

In this episode of CSU’s Community Voices series, we’ll hear from people working to bring more healthy, locally produced food to school menus right here at home.

Bring Your Voice to the Table.

Looking to get involved in your community?  Here are some ways you can learn more and bring your voice to the table: 

Read the Full Story Behind "Farm to School Meals"

“So important to our community”

Trinidad, Colorado, School District One is a prime example of how important school meals can be to a community. With the overwhelming majority of the district’s nearly 800 students on free or reduced lunch, the staff understands that school meals are often the most important nutritional component of a child’s day.

“The quality and accessibility of good produce and fresh food is so important to our community,” Bonnie Aaron, superintendent of Trinidad School District Number One, said. “Because we are at 82 percent free and reduced in our population – and the fact that Trinidad is high poverty – it’s important that all students receive a free breakfast and a free lunch. It’s a very big concern amongst our staff that when the students aren’t here for a long period of time because of shutdowns and remote instruction, that the students will not be getting enough of the valued nutrition that they need.”

Creating a True Food Value Chain

Like many institutions across the country, Aaron said her school district would love to partner with local food producers to bring more fresh local products to the table. For a variety of reasons, however, making those connections can be difficult for both institutions and local food producers. That’s where groups like Nourish Colorado are helping build important new bridges.

“What I do is really focus on supporting our institutions to serve healthier foods, whether or not that is scratch made meals, more fresh fruits and vegetables, and with a big focus on trying to bring more local products into their institutional meal programs,” Jessica Wright, senior programs and policy manager for Nourish Colorado, said.

Nourish Colorado is a statewide nonprofit organization working to reshape and improve food systems through a combination of policy advocacy, program development and community partnerships.

“Our goal is ensuring that every single Coloradan has access to the nourishing food that they want and desire,” Wright said. “And we do this because our food system, right now, it’s not set up to truly value the entire process of getting the food from the field onto people’s plates. And so we really want to focus on creating a true value chain food system, where every single person, from the farmers, to the workers in the field, to those who are transporting it, to those who are preparing it are truly valued and appreciated for their contribution to what they do to ensure that we are fed.”

We Don’t Know How to Do It

For third-generation Colorado farmer Derrick Hoffman, the benefits of bringing more locally produced food to school menus seems obvious. For local food producers, however, navigating the often-complex world of institutional food programs can be daunting.

“Up until the last few years, schools had been buying a lot of processed, already precut food to make distribution easy,” Hoffman said. “Also, just being public institutions, being publicly funded, they’re required to have a competitive bidding process. And a lot of people see that as just a lot of paperwork. They don’t know how to fill it out.

“So, the feedback early on – and this is seven years ago when we started – was, ‘Well, we don’t buy local. We don’t have the staff to process it, or we don’t know how to do it.’ And I think that’s where Nourish Colorado stepped in. They opened up the doors for us so that the schools weren’t intimidated buying local or not buying something that wasn’t already precut and ready to serve.”

Trinidad School District Number One Food Services Director Kathy Vigil agrees that Nourish Colorado has played an important role in helping her staff incorporate more fresh produce into school meals.

“We still did a lot of scratch cooking, but maybe not as much as schools used to,” Vigil said. “But Nourish Colorado helped us with equipment and training. They helped the staff with training on food quality, food safety, even how to properly use a knife.”

“Transforming the food system is no small task. It is a massive puzzle, and we look at it as everybody has their own puzzle piece,” Wright said. “So not only are we looking at the institutions and the people who are buying the food and planning the menus, usually the food service director. We also want those cooks involved too, making sure they have the skills, the culinary skills, the time management skills to where again, if they’re getting a 50-pound bag of carrots in their door and they’re used to opening up bags of baby carrots, we want them to be happy and excited about these carrots because they’re coming from the farmer down the street.”

Wright noted that Colorado State University’s Office of Engagement and Extension has also played a key role in helping connect farmers and local food producers with new institutional markets.

“Our CSU Extension specialists have been really helpful on the agricultural side with things like farm food safety, crop planning, and more. I’m a chef. I can help people figure out how to make the food, but when it comes to what to plant and how much to grow, we need those experts there on the ground, helping us with that process,” Wright said.

Abby Weber, CSU Area Extension Agent, said that providing expertise “here in our own backyard” is something the local community has come to expect from CSU.

“CSU is continually researching and bringing that to our own community,” Weber said. “And then our local producers are able to support each other through our community networking to be able to share the knowledge that they’ve gained from what it is we’re providing. So, CSU Extension is really a part of the generational farming in this community.”

These Kids are the Customers

As all the pieces come together – from administrators to food producers, cooks and ultimately students and their families – together, they are helping create added value throughout their communities.

“The kids are the customers, they really are,” Wright said. “We’ve seen kids where their parents might not like broccoli, but we get the kids to like it in a school. And then they go home and they’re at the grocery store and they’re like, ‘Mom, dad, we need to buy broccoli. Because I had it at school and they roasted it and it was the most amazing thing.’ And that’s when the magic starts happening and the kids are, they can truly be the drivers of change and even start changing their parents, eating habits as well along with setting them up with healthy eating habits for the rest of their life too.”

Ways to Get Involved

“Jessica Wright, Nourish Colorado: “So, number one, if you have kids and they go to a school district and they are not eating a school lunch, have them participate in the school meal program, that’s number one across the board. Again, the more kids that participate, the more money that’s coming into the system, the more local food they can buy. Even if you aren’t thrilled with the meal program with the way it is now, we need your investment. We need your participation. If you don’t have kids still go check out a school lunch. I think you would be floored with how things have changed over the last 20 years really with what’s happening.” Contact Nourish Colorado

Derrick Hoffman, Farmer: “I think a lot of parents may not realize their voices matter. So, I mean, just simply reaching out to a teacher is a good start, “Hey, what can we do”, reaching out to a school principal? And you start at the bottom and get that communication to go up to the top.”

Abby Weber, CSU Office of Engagement & Extension: “We would love to share with you our portion of this farm to school project, or farm to institution project, which is a big part of getting the ball rolling. CSU Extension is supporting every portion of that. It’s a phased process, so from start to finish literally from the field or the farm to the institution that’s setting up those contracts. And CSU has the availability to help support our farmers and ranchers with financial education and that contract building, what that looks like.” Learn more about Farm to Table with CSU.

Kathy Vigil, Trinidad School District Number One: “I would hope that it gets the students and families to want to come and eat.” Contact Trinidad’s Department of Food Service.