A Busy Restaurant Serves up Stone Soup

By: Jacqueline Church 

The largest restaurant in Chicopee may be one you’ve never considered. Serving over 100,000 meals per month, the Chicopee School District may not appear in any dining guide, but just like at popular eateries, local and seasonal foods such as roasted asparagus or kale chips regularly appear on the menu.

In a scenario reminiscent of the old stone soup legend, cooperation, resourcefulness, and contributions from many corners produce a healthy, delicious outcome for the whole Chicopee community.

In the original tale, hungry travelers enter a village asking for food. Townspeople are reluctant to feed the strangers but when the clever travelers plop a stone into a pot of water and begin cooking their “stone soup” curious villagers ask what they’re making. The strangers describe their soup, which is quite good, but could be better with just a carrot. Ah, that’s no problem, the first villager spares a carrot to improve the soup. An onion, though, that would improve the stone soup even more. A second villager is enticed to contribute. And so it goes until everyone chips in something. In the end the whole town enjoys the delicious results of their combined efforts.

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The Chicopee “stone soup” recipe includes:
-    feeding students (and seniors) nutritious meals year-round
-    incorporating locally grown foods
-    supporting local farms
-    building nutrition awareness in students and their families
-    creating jobs and supporting new small businesses 

National Issues, Local Flavor
Nationwide, over 14% of families experience food insecurity, meaning that their access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources. Nearly 60% of Chicopee School District students receive free or reduced-price meals. For many of the youngest, their only access to fresh fruits and vegetables is at school.

Joanne Lennon, director of food service for the district, ensures students get nutritious meals featuring local produce. Through the support of WestMass ElderCare she also serves 200 seniors per day. Constant innovation, grants, and relationships with local farmers like Joe Czajkowski exemplify efforts that make other farm-to-school projects successful. Community support comes from the Massachusetts Farm to School Project (Mass Farm to School) and the Franklin County Community Development Corporation (the CDC).

Mass Farm to School began 10 years ago, with a focus on agricultural and economic development. Lisa Damon, farm-to-cafeteria coordinator, says students at more than 200 schools enjoy local foods as a result of their efforts to find new markets for farmers. Matching farmers and schools, facilitating relationships and providing promotional assistance are all part of the crucial bridge between farmers and customers. Increasing the access to healthy, locally grown food is another goal. Promotions such as the Harvest of the Month Club reach students in this important market segment; 130 schools participated last year with materials like “I tried it” stickers, trading cards, and posters.

Lennon and her staff of 100 full- and part-time workers produce from-scratch meals though many come with little or no prior culinary experience. Recipe contests are one way she encourages them to put the Pioneer Valley on the menu.

Weighing innovation against budget and time constraints ensures multiple goals are met. The high rate of reimbursement at Chicopee means each project carries the opportunity to cover labor costs and impact her bottom line. (The USDA provides funding to cover some or all of the costs of reduced-cost or free meals.) Time can be a challenge however. The wait in a lunch line can push students toward grab-and-go options. Expanding the lunch hour, however, would mean longer days and more teacher hours, budget the schools don’t have.

Still, Lennon is proud of successful programs that are improving her students’ and their families’ access to more nutritious foods. The “Breakfast in the Classroom” pilot coming to the Stefanik School is one of the most exciting grant-enabled pilots on the horizon. Each school offers breakfast before classes, but if kids run late they’ll often skip it. This has consequences for their nutrition, their ability to concentrate, and impacts the classroom environment. By offering breakfast after the start of school, in the classroom, almost no kids miss breakfast.

This a positive outcome for the kids, as well as the budget. At Stefanik 90% of the population are on free or reduced-cost meal plans, so building breakfast into the day should boost participation from 50% to 80%, covering costs and labor via USDA reimbursement.

Supported by a Kendall Foundation grant and facilitated by the University of Massachusetts, Chicopee High and Comprehensive High will feature local vegetables in new stir-fry stations this year. And in a move Lennon believes might be a first, she’s just hired a sustainability coordinator for the K–12 dining program.

Third-generation farmer Joe Czajkowski speaks highly of Lennon and of the support of Mass Farm to School Project that brought them together. Czajkowski farms 300 acres, over one third of which is certified organic. In addition to supplying local Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and others, he’s seen steady growth in the orders from Chicopee since they began to work together.

Last year Czajkowski’s farm sold 27 different types of fruits and vegetables to schools. He’s happy to put his land to more beneficial use and is looking forward to providing even more locally grown produce to schools going forward. Logistics are a challenge. While the food miles are reduced by buying locally, he still has to make 13 stops for 13 schools. It’s trickier to manage than a school like Worcester where it’s a single stop. Overall, selling to the schools works because of the strong local relationships this farm-to-school project engenders.

He credits Lennon with sincerity, communications, and tenacity to make it work. These are the very same qualities noted in the USDA Farm to School Team’s Summary report (July 11) issued after a survey of 15 school districts’ implementation of farm-to-school programs in the year 2010.

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As a small-business incubator, the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, or CDC, is all about sustaining growth in the local economy Nico Lustig, food business development specialist, says helping local businesses grow is its chief goal. From exploring small food business formation, to providing business counseling and small business lending, to offering food processing and packing, the CDC has been an important part of many thriving local startups.

Now in its 35th year, the CDC and its Western Mass Food Processing Center operation have completed an experiment in using freezing and canning technique to extend the growing season.  As we go to press, they are installing new equipment to improve capacity and efficiency. This will enable them to meet the growing demand for services along the farm-to-schools continuum.

The ability to freeze, can, and store the harvest is beyond what any individual school or farm can handle. Lustig anticipates the CDC freezing up to 250,000 pounds of regional produce for schools and hospitals. The primary crops will be carrots, broccoli, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes.  Later they will experiment with other frozen vegetables including zucchini, beets, cauliflower, and vegetable medleys.

The CDC’s expansion is the last contribution to Chicopee’s stone soup, begun by Mass Farm to School’s pairing Joe Czajkowski with Joanne Lennon. Students and their families enjoy local produce, and the community benefits from job creation, good land use, and local spending.

 

When Jacqueline Church is not teaching people to cook food they love with Kitchen Confidence, she talks to strangers about food. Whether at the farmers' market, in guided tours, articles, at a podium, or at the bar. You can also find her at JacquelineChurch.com or @LDGourmet on Twitter.