Virginia is Committing to Local, Scratch-Cooked School Food Statewide
February 15, 2022 | By
The Chef Ann Foundation is partnering with The Virginia Department of Education on a new program called “Virginia Food for Virginia Kids”. This initiative will increase capacity for school food programs to procure, process, and serve more local food in their school meals program.
In Virginia, there are 1.3 million students enrolled across 2,000 public schools. 132 school divisions (Virginia’s phrase for “school districts”) serve 171 million breakfasts and lunches combined each year. That’s 171 million opportunities to feed kids healthy, nutritious food at school, and the Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) is excited to partner with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) on their renewed focus on healthy school meals.
A new program called “Virginia Food for Virginia Kids” (VFVK) will increase capacity for school food programs to procure, process, and serve more local food in their school meals program. The program will be modeled after California Thursdays, a California initiative that focuses on the incorporation of local food into school meals, showcased on Thursdays throughout the state. CAF is supporting the VFVK initiative by designing and providing eight pilot divisions with a readiness assessment. This assessment reveals the barriers and opportunities that each division has with local procurement. The goal of the readiness assessment is to look at the key categories of Food, Facilities, Finances, Human Resources and Marketing to provide recommendations for a long-term and sustainable approach to increasing local foods into school meal programs.
VDOE has already demonstrated the readiness to take on the challenge of changing their school food statewide: they’ve seen success in a number of USDA grant-funded programs, including developing a farm to school coalition across the eight superintendent regions, and a Team Nutrition grant to support scratch cook recipe development in four regions.
With a strong commitment to education, health, and the environment already in place, VFVK will work across multiple levels of leadership from within the VDOE. The steering committee is championed by the Office of School Nutrition Programs at the VDOE, led by Sandy Curwood, State Director, and her team, which includes a farm to school specialist, culinary specialist, wellness specialist, and a training and marketing specialist.
We connected with Sandy to discuss the collaborative work VDOE and CAF are doing to serve local ingredients to kids across the state of Virginia:
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you decided to start the Virginia Foods for Virginia Kids program?
I met Ann Cooper about 20 years ago, through the Center for EcoLiteracy, when she just got hired at Berkeley Unified School District. At that time, we were all simply trying to understand more about school food. Since then, I’ve been on a path to improve school nutrition for the rest of my life.
Previously, I worked as a dietitian in health care and started getting into school food once I saw what my kids were being fed. I got a job as the school nutrition program director at Ventura Unified School District in Ventura, California and implemented a salad bar, started scratch cooking, garden enhanced learning, incorporated nutrition education into their curriculum, into each of the 25 schools and supported the evolution of a school-based farm.
I finished my PHD at Iowa state, focusing on farm to school implementation, and decided I wanted to do more. I thought I could be more effective at the state level, so I went to the Virginia Department of Education (VOE), where I’ve been for five years helping them increase scratch cooking, nutrition education, and create better farm to school programs. I took my previous knowledge from California Food for California Kids and decided it would be great to replicate in Virginia. My goal is for kids to have access to as local, seasonal, and regional food as we can give them. And with the help of The Chef Ann Foundation’s assessment tool, we will be able to take this evaluation to see what these schools need.
What other partners are involved in this work and how are they contributing?
The Virginia Food for Virginia Kids (VFVK) Steering Committee combines diverse partners and stakeholders from across the Commonwealth and beyond, to develop programs and resources that support increasing fresh, local, healthy, food in school nutrition programs.
The Center for Ecoliteracy provided the background from their work in California. The Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) then developed a division assessment that provides insights into where training, technical assistance, and professional development can build capacity to increase scratch cooking, local food procurement, and culturally inclusive meal offerings. CAF is working with a pilot group of eight divisions and will use the completed assessments to provide recommendations and help implement them, as well as lead facilitated discussions to troubleshoot and share best practices. No Kid Hungry Virginia (NKH VA) has a strong pulse on grant opportunities and has been integral in collecting equity data and leveraging incentives to grow VFVK programs for the pilot divisions. NKH VA is able to communicate among superintendents, principals and teachers to amplify the VFVK messaging and stress the connection between VFVK, the Community Eligibility Provision, and summer meal programs.
Within the Steering Committee are two subcommittees: the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Subcommittee and The Workforce Development Subcommittee. The M&E is creating a framework for VFVK. Our partners at the University of Virginia (UVA) are key players, as they have expertise in monitoring and evaluating farm to school initiatives and were also involved with evaluating California Food for California Kids, a similar initiative in California. UVA is taking the lead in identifying funding avenues for M&E support. The Workforce Development Subcommittee is gathering key organizations to both evolve the professional nature of the school nutrition workforce and align Virginia programs to effectively train and prepare future school nutrition staff. The Department of Aging and Rehabilitation Services has a unique role working to identify career pathways for individuals with disabilities and are developing an apprenticeship program for school nutrition job training. Additionally, the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education will utilize existing statewide agriculture programs to increase work-based learning. FoodCorps will have a strong role in streamlining these programs and hopes to one day establish Virginia service members to support these efforts.
In order to connect divisions with producers who will be integral partners in the VFVK programs, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services provides that critical link between divisions and farmers, vendors, food hubs, and distributors. Their expertise will provide training to divisions on utilizing USDA Foods and DoD Fresh to increase scratch cooking and local procurement. The Foundation for Healthy Youth will be promoting them across all of their channels – Y Street Youth, FeedVA, and social media. They also have the capacity to provide infrastructure to provide training and skill building once areas of need are identified from the division assessments. To further increase promotion of the programs, Real Food for Kids will build VFVK into their annual culinary challenge that will implemented statewide in 2023.
Can you explain the major benefits schools will have by incorporating more local foods into their menus?
It’s really important for students to connect with caring adults, and what greater way to do that than in the cafeteria? If you can do that with really good, healthy food, you are creating a solid foundation for both students’ health and education. Additionally, if you can incorporate school gardens into the curriculum, not only will students learn about their wellness but also about the planet’s wellness.
Lastly, if you can add a cultural component, that is really empowering as well. This gives children a sense of community and an understanding for other cultures. Food is a really great way to make those connections. The VDOE has a culturally inclusive meals task force where they explore how to be more inclusive. Fairfax County has a particularly diverse population with over 150 languages spoken among students.
How does procuring school food locally impact both local farmers and the surrounding communities?
It’s interesting because farmers can sometimes be singularly focused. When you create opportunities to sell their product to schools, it presents a new avenue. Schools will usually take most of their product. Additionally, from an investment perspective, it’s really good for the community to keep these dollars local. If we can protect land and agriculture, we can protect communities and job creation.
Furthermore, this is an opportunity to create jobs for students. In Virginia, they have great tie-in programs to support the service industry including farming, agriculture, school food, and nutrition through career and technical education programs. Workforce development opportunities are really great for all.
Are there any barriers or obstacles you have run into or that you foresee around increasing local procurement in schools?
Bureaucracy. People say they want to do things but they put up blocks to keep that from happening. For example, supply chain assistance money - they want to spend it on local produce but make it challenging to create infrastructure to do that.
We have these bureaucratic barriers. They simply don’t put forth the extra effort to move things forward. To create change, it’s important to see what’s preventing us and how we can overcome it within the framework of what we have.
How does local procurement impact the overall operations of these schools?
It takes a lot more coordination and effort. If you order frozen pizza, it’s one step. If you order pizza ingredients, it’s tomatoes, it’s cheese, it’s everything you need to make that pizza. It requires more technical experience, planning, and coordination. But like everything that’s worth doing, the outcome is much better, and school divisions that have done ingredient-based procurement have done much better with managing supply chain issues.
What resources have been most helpful to your school food teams throughout this process?
Colleagues in other states that share a lot, as well as a lot of collaboration with other districts and our community. If they fail at something, they share it; if they do something well, they share it. This all benefits each other and has been extremely helpful throughout this process.
USDA waivers have also been super helpful, allowing for non-congregate feeding.
What’s next for Virginia Foods for Virginia Kids?
Next steps are taking the lessons we learn from the CAF assessments to other school divisions and then getting them up and running with training and evaluations. We are also planning to get Virginia Thursdays started in the fall, encouraging schools statewide to incorporate local foods into their menus every Thursday.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience with the program thus far?
It’s really important to get a lot of collaboration from like-minded stakeholders, to put a plan in place and move things forward so people can see something tangible coming out of it.