Lindsay Howard is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Ronan, MT.
Everything is going to work out, perfectly, I thought. Here in Lake County, several schools were interested in finding fresh, local carrots for Farm to School month. Did you catch that, several schools? I was psyched at the chance to engage schools in cooperative purchasing, because by increasing volume, the price would drop correspondingly, according to basic principles of economics.
Affordable, local carrots? Sounds great to me!
So at 2:00 in a Missoula parking lot, a truck-load of 1,000 pounds of carrots from the Cascade Colony would meet up with a delivery truck from Western Montana Growers Cooperative. The delivery driver would simply slide the pallet from truck A to truck B, drive up to Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center and unload the pallet in the warehouse.
Then the phone rang, like a shrill alarm clock waking me from my happy dream. The two delivery trucks were different heights, and therefore did not line up to move the palette. The delivery driver from WMGC would have to hand-load each 50lb bag of carrots. This would add an extra $3 per 50lbs to the cost of the product. I know that this seems like a mere 6 cents per pound, but to a food service director even pennies will break the budget.
Will all of our Farm to School Month activities be derailed by the difference of 18 inches between truck beds? I worried.
Prior to my work as a MTCC VISTA with FoodCorps, I was under the assumption that the biggest obstacle for schools to buy healthy, locally-grown foods was price. It’s an unfortunate but often true fact that purchasing locally grown items is more expensive than purchasing through the big national providers. But in reality, from start to finish, high quality food takes high quality effort.
The first challenge is to identify what items are in season and what the availability is. Is there a farmer with 500 pounds of cabbage? How does it get to the school?
Then there’s labor. While many schools wanted to serve winter squash during Farm to School month, practically no cafeteria had the staff time to cut up something as labor intensive as butternut squash.
And then there’s the unexpected obstacles, like the difference in sizes of truck beds.
My job to to help all the partners work through each of these challenges, one by one, until finally, with enough sweat–and, okay, maybe a few tears—we can get fresh healthy food to kids who need it. And it’s working! During Farm to School month, Flathead-area schools served carrots, parsnips, beets, squash, and grass-fed beef in delicious menu offerings including stuffed bell peppers and homemade meatballs with local pasta.
But even on the delicious school meal days, I was reminded that my job extends beyond just getting the food to the schools, and into getting the food into kids’ bellies. Sure, lots of kids devoured the local, tasty meals. AND, I witnessed enough servings of squash in the trash can to get re-inspired to work on the educational aspects of Farm to School, like cooking classes, taste tests, and school gardens.
At least I’m no longer worried about what to do in the winter!