Buffalo Public Schools Launches New Farm to School to You Food Truck

Becky O'Connor, Farm to School Coordinator, WNY & Finger Lakes
Harvest New York

October 8, 2020

Since launching in 2014, the Buffalo Farm to School initiative (Buffalo F2S) has grown from a small pilot to a nationally-recognized program. During the 2019-2020 school year, Buffalo F2S spent over $2 million, or just over 41% of its lunch expenditures, on produce, dairy, beef, juice, and other NY foods.

The focus of Buffalo F2S is not solely on procuring and serving delicious local foods. The F2S team educates and engages students through initiatives like taste tests, Agriculture Literacy Week, classroom lessons, Harvest of the Month, and NY Thursdays. Through a partnership with the district's Health and Wellness program, the team has made resources, lessons, and materials available to all teachers.

When deciding how to expand the program even further, the Buffalo F2S team considered several programming needs and opportunities. They knew there was a need to develop more diverse, culturally-relevant, and plant-based menu options to better serve the 33 ethnicities that comprise the student body. They also recognized they had capacity to expand F2S beyond the National School Lunch Program to all of the district's feeding programs (the Summer Food Service Program, Child and Adult Care Program, and catering), and to engage more farm partners, including beginner, urban, and socially-disadvantaged farmers. Finally, they wanted to tackle two areas where they had struggled to establish impactful programming: community engagement, and experiential food systems education.

The idea to launch a F2S food truck was inspired after dining off one at a New England school, in which the students were engaged, the community was enthralled, and the food was delicious. The Buffalo F2S team saw the food truck as a literal and figurative vehicle to address persistent challenges in their F2S program: forging a deeper connection to the classroom, providing a more effective means to engage the community, and offering a solution to expand the F2S program beyond just the school lunch program - thereby increasing the district's ability to purchase more locally grown and produced food.

The food truck will serve as a learning laboratory, offering experiential learning opportunities that incorporate education on culinary arts, agriculture, nutrition, business development, and marketing. Two new F2S and culinary curricula will be developed for students at Buffalo School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management and the Occupational Training Center. There will also be a new culinary program offered to students throughout the district four times each year, during which they will develop new F2S menus they will then serve from the food truck at Child and Adult Care Program sites.

To help improve the cultural relevancy of menu items and increase the number of plant-based options, a plant-forward food training will be provided to 80 food service workers. This training will help contribute to the development and testing of additional culturally-relevant, plant-based menus which will be served from the food truck and in cafeterias.

The food truck will serve local lunches and newly developed menus at the district's 16 high schools on a rotating schedule. Beginning in summer 2021 the food truck will also visit summer meal sites. In addition to increasing access to delicious locally-grown foods, the food truck will appeal to difficult-to-engage high schoolers, and families in the Buffalo community who may not typically take advantage of the free meals offered through the Summer Food Service Program.

The district has already begun using its purchasing power to support beginner, urban, and socially-disadvantaged farmers, who often struggle with entry into large institutional markets because they can't meet volume and distribution needs. By using a tool called "geographic preference," BPS made it possible for these farmers to respond to the district's fresh produce bid. For 2020-2021, the district awarded $646,330 to NY fruit, vegetable, and beef farmers and producers, with $10,580 going to Groundwork Market Garden and 5 Loaves Farm, which are located right in the city of Buffalo.

At the grand opening, families from the Buffalo community received a free hot lunch made with NY grown and raised dairy, beef, vegetables, and fruit for each child under the age of 18 in their household. During remote learning, the Farm to School to You food truck will visit sites throughout the district where families can pick up their free meals. For more information, including where families can receive meals during remote learning, and for the food truck schedule, please visit: BPS School Closure Food Service Plan. Families can also visit Buffalo F2S's social media pages for the location of the truck and information pertaining to the program. The handle for both Facebook and Twitter is @BuffaloF2S.

The Buffalo F2S initiative would like to thank the following people/organizations for their long-standing support of the program: NYS Dept. of Agriculture & Markets; Cheryl Thayer, Becky O'Connor, Mallory Hohl, and Sara Jablonski of Cornell Cooperative Extension; Dr. Kathy Border of D'youville College; and Julian Montague of Julian Montague Projects. A special thank you to a new F2S partner, PJ Azzarella of JP Food Trucks, LLC.

State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball said, "As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our communities, Farm to School is more important now than ever. It is helping our school districts and agricultural organizations, such as Cornell Cooperative Extension, to bring farm-fresh, healthy local foods to our school children and it provides a market for our farmers, who are still struggling with reduced demand and oversupply of product. Buffalo Public Schools and its Farm to School team has done tremendous work educating our young people about New York agriculture and serving delicious, nutritious New York products to our students. We congratulate them on this creative new initiative to expand Farm to School beyond the lunch tray."

Bridget O'Brien-Wood, Food Service Director, Buffalo Public Schools said, "October is National Farm to School Month and we are very excited to be able to serve our popular Farm to School meals from this great new food truck that will feature ingredients from local New York farmers throughout the year! COVID may be keeping our students from coming to school for now, but we are determined to get this Farm to School food truck out on the road to offer our families a hot, nutritious lunch made from local ingredients that our students can enjoy in the comfort and safety of their home."

Julie Suarez, Associate Dean for Government & Community Relations, Cornell University College of Agriculture & Life Sciences said, "Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Cooperative Extension System is deeply committed to matching local farmers and foods with local kids. Efforts like the mobile Farm to School truck to put additional local healthy foods in the hands of our children is just a win-win partnership for all involved. I'm so pleased that our Harvest NY program is working hand in hand with the City of Buffalo's school system to benefit the next generation."

Katie Schuta, Principal, Buffalo School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management said, "The Buffalo School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management's students and staff are so eager to be a part of the Buffalo Farm to School to You food truck. Food trucks have become an integral part of the nation's culinary fabric and we are excited to be able to offer our students this amazing opportunity. We want to keep our students abreast of the current trends in the culinary industry and this helps to do that. This opportunity combines two of the culinary industry's hottest movements: food trucks and farm to table. We could not be prouder to be a part of this."

PJ Azzarella, President, JP Food Trucks, LLC said, "JP Food Trucks is honored to be able to build this food truck for Buffalo Public Schools. Not only will this truck be used as a teaching tool at the Buffalo School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management, it will also be used to provide nutritious meals to many of the under-served communities throughout the City of Buffalo during this pandemic and beyond! We are confident you will see this truck serving the citizens of the City of Buffalo for many years to come!"

Credit for all photos included in this article: R.J. Anderson, Cornell Cooperative Extension

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