In Chicopee, a densely populated city in Western Massachusetts, access to fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables can be a challenge.
“We have some food deserts in Chicopee, pockets of really low-income families that don’t have a grocery store or easy transportation to get there,” says Joanne Lennon, Food Service Director of the Chicopee Public Schools Food Service Department. “There’s not a huge availability of local, healthy foods at home.”
ChicopeeFRESH, a new initiative from Chicopee Public Schools Food Service Department, has recently set an ambitious goal to increase the amount of fresh, local, and sustainably produced food served at its schools. “Our overarching goal is to spend 10% of our budget, our yearly food budget, on local food,” says Madison Walker, Sustainable Food Systems Coordinator.
“Many of the kids at these schools don’t have a lot of healthy food being served at home, so when they come to school and the food is brought in from local farms that day and immediately prepared by the kitchen workers, that’s huge for them,” says Ryan Harb, founder of Ryan Harb Consulting who has been working with ChicopeeFRESH since 2014.
“This meal may be the kids’ only really nutritious meal of the day, so it can make a big difference in their mental and physical well-being,” says Ryan. “I see food as a foundational piece that can really help people on a daily basis and continue to affect their entire lives.”
After the first year of the ChicopeeFRESH initiative, the school district has increased its spending on local foods tenfold to over $100,000, representing nearly 7% of the district’s annual food budget.
“The biggest benefit for Chicopee is accessibility – providing good food to people who might not have access to a grocery store with affordable prices and healthy food,” says Ryan. “I think that’s what’s going to make a difference. Kids will care about where their food comes from and will learn to value locally sourced food – that can create consumers of healthy, local food for years to come.”
As an urban public school system feeding 7,800 Kindergarten through 12th grade students in 15 different schools every day, Chicopee Public Schools hopes its ChicopeeFRESH initiative will become a model for other K-12 public schools.
“We’re trying to be the premier K-12 urban food service program in the state that’s serving as much locally sourced produce as possible and providing accessibility to kids in Chicopee might not be able to at home,” says Ryan.
Increasing the amount of locally sourced food is not an easy task, but is made easier by the dedicated Sustainable Food Systems Coordinator position created as part of a grant from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation.
“Joanne has always tried to source locally, but it was an uncoordinated, complicated ordering schedule. Because of the Food Systems Coordinator position, we’re able to source somewhere in the range of nine times more than we were before because we have someone dedicated to it every day,” says Madison.
Through the creation of a recipe committee, where Madison and three other Chicopee Public Schools Food Service Department staff members develop and organize taste tests of new dishes, ChicopeeFRESH has worked on increasing local produce in school lunches this past year with new recipes that feature seasonal items. Additionally, Madison has worked on building relationships with local producers, such as Joe Czajkowski, a farmer from nearby Hadley, MA who also aggregates produce from 25 farms in addition to his own.
Although sourcing locally is the main goal of ChicopeeFRESH, they also want to make sure the kids are enjoying the new meals. Ensuring kids like the new recipes is critical to the initiative’s success.
According to Joanne, the new recipes are working. “When we have roasted asparagus, the kids ask ‘can we have seconds?’ How often do you have kids asking for seconds of asparagus?” she asks.
Feeding large numbers of people everyday, institutions such as Chicopee Public Schools are able to use their purchasing power to make significant shifts in the regional food system while also supporting healthy eating behaviors. With school food entering the national spotlight in recent news, ChicopeeFRESH is one example of how sourcing fresh, nutritious food from nearby farms can strengthen both local economies and students’ minds and bodies.
Learn more: ChicopeeFRESH
Kids will care about where their food comes from and will learn to value locally sourced food—that can create consumers of healthy, local food for years to come.