Using Regionally Grown Grains and Pulses in School Meals

Best Practices, Supply Chain Analysis and Case Studies

By Erin McKee VanSlooten   JoAnne Berkenkamp, Tomorrow's Table LLC; Kaylee Skaar, IATP intern
Published January 15, 2015

Best Practices for using regionally grown grains and legumes in school meals

Healthy, regionally grown grains and legumes are a growing part of Farm to School. Our six case studies on the introduction of locally grown grains and pulses feature school districts, food vendors and partners in communities ranging from: Portland, Ore.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Ithaca, N.Y.; Hopkins, Minn.; Fairbanks, Alaska and Kalispell, Mont. Their forays into locally grown grains and pulses have included lentils, barley, dry beans, tofu and wheatberries, among others.

The Upper Midwest Regional Learning Lab, operated by School Food FOCUS, also catalyzed seven large, urban Midwestern districts to explore the opportunities and challenges of sourcing regionally grown grains and legumes on a larger scale.

While each district’s experience is unique (and we invite you to review the individual case studies to learn more), some common themes emerged about what helped or hindered their efforts. To help you consider where locally or regionally grown grains and pulses might fit for your district, here are some best practices that emerged from their experience.

Helping hands: Partnerships to help you on your way

  • You don’t need to go it alone! All of the districts we studied have partner organizations that have played key roles as the districts honed their strategy for adding locally grown grains and pulses to their menu.
  • As reflected in our case studies, partner organizations can help on many fronts. These include:
    • Identifying local sources of grains and legumes
    • Developing product specifications
    • Developing recipes tailored to your district’s equipment and staff capacity
    • Planning and conducting taste tests with students
    • Identifying distribution partners and innovative delivery strategies
    • Linking with teachers and classroom activities to reinforce your Farm to School program outside the cafeteria
    • Conducting awareness-raising efforts with students, parents and your community
  • Potential partners could include universities and colleges, local food and farming organizations, food enterprise incubators, agricultural trade associations, chefs, government agencies and national organizations like FoodCorps, among others.

Sourcing Grains & Legumes grown in your area

  • Understanding the offerings and limitations of one’s local food supply can help your district develop a definition of “Farm to School” or “local” or “regionally grown” foods that is appropriate to your district’s unique circumstances. For instance, the Kalispell Public School District prioritizes sources that are quite close to home but reaches out statewide or regionally as needed given product availability.
  • If you are purchasing from a processor or aggregator, make sure to ask about where their grains or pulses are actually grown and how much transparency they can provide back to the food’s place of origin. This is key for ensuring that any statements you make about the origin of the product are accurate and verifiable.
  • Candid, two-way communication between school districts and their vendors can help lay the groundwork to explore mutually beneficial strategies for meeting district procurement needs. Your feedback can also provide vendors with important information about how the nature of market demand may be changing (for instance, toward more local or sustainably grown products). As reflected in the Portland, Oregon case study, dialogue with vendors about the pros and cons of their products can also encourage continued quality improvements and innovation.
  • Particularly where a grains or legume supply chain involves several players working in coordination (such as farmers, aggregators, processors and distributors, along with the school district itself), taking the time for all players to develop a mutual understanding of each other’s aspirations, priorities and limitations can be essential to bringing new local foods into a school district effectively.

Crunching the Numbers: Food Costs and Labor

  • As foodservice staff increase their familiarity with local food and farming issues, their interest in working with locally grown foods is likely to increase. Make sure to give your staff fun and compelling learning opportunities by having your farm suppliers visit the school, enabling staff to visit farms, and interacting with related organizations in your local food system.
  • A little training up front can do a lot to help staff feel comfortable preparing new grain and legume dishes. Provide adequate training for foodservice staff as you explore new foods.
  • When considering how to incorporate grains and pulses into your menu, consider potential impacts on labor, both favorable and unfavorable. As Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan found, a less-processed product can sometimes require less labor time than a more processed “convenience” product once preparation methods have been sorted out.
  • When exploring your options for locally grown and less processed ingredients like dry beans, consider whether these products could help you meet other goals, such as reducing sodium.
  • Tasks like boiling dry beans may seem like a considerable use of staff time. However, some districts have found that staff can readily do other tasks while beans are on the boil, making more efficient use of their time. Also consider the time to be saved by avoiding the need to open and dispose of cans.
  • Locally grown beans and lentils can be a helpful tool for bringing down the overall cost of entrees. Explore how these items could complement meat proteins at the center of the plate.
  • When assessing the cost of incorporating these ingredients, it is important to look at the overall cost of the finished product, not only the difference in price per pound of a particular ingredient. Modest cost increases can often be accommodated by trimming costs in other areas.
  • Experiment with alternative cooking methods. For instance, the Ithaca City School District in New York found that steaming dry beans was less time-consuming for their staff than the more traditional method of boiling dry beans.
  • Make sure to factor delivery costs into your cost calculations, especially if you plan to buy direct from a local supplier that will deliver directly to your location(s). Most grain and legume items store well, so consider purchasing larger volumes that bring your delivery costs down.
  • Increasing the acceptance of grains and legumes among Students thorough taste-testing with students of different ages is key before introducing new grain and legume recipes. The time you put into taste-testing is likely to be time well spent as you explore new recipes and hone your approach.
  • Allowing students to see and touch the raw ingredients may increase their interest in trying new recipes.
  • Marketing and educational efforts can help promote new menu offerings and inform students about where the grains and legumes on your menu come from. If possible, have farmers and other vendors visit your school to interact with students or have students get out on the farm (check out the national Farm to School website for a wide variety of nutrition, culinary and farm-based education tools:
  • Innovative seasonings were viewed as key to encouraging students to eat more beans. Flavor profiles that parallel those of popular quick-serve restaurants would be one possibility. With beans on salad bars, it was suggested that districts use dry beans and add flavors suited to their student population to make them more palatable.
  • Some districts observed that it can be challenging to provide enough beans to count as an entrée under USDA FNS requirements. That might argue for combining beans with other proteins. This approach may also have the added benefits of increasing palatability and reducing plate waste.
  • Try introducing new grains and legumes to your menu by incorporating them into existing dishes that your students already know and like (such as turkey-bean chili, beef-lentil burgers, soups, cold salads and bread items.) Many districts we studied have found this to be highly effective as they transition locally grown grains and legumes into the tray.

Download the full report or download individual case studies.

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