HOTM Profile: Chicopee Public Schools

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School District Chicopee Public Schools
Location Chicopee, MA
Student Population 7700
Cafeterias 15

We had a great discussion with Greta Schwachman (FoodCorps member with ChicopeeFRESH), Rachel Harb (Chicopee Public Schools Farm to School Coordinator), Becky Barrett (Head Chef at Lambert-Lavoie Elementary School), and Joanne Lennon (Director of Food Service at Chicopee Public Schools), who all shared their experiences implementing Harvest of the Month with us.

Procurement & Menu Incorporation

The Chicopee Public Schools, and their Farm to School program, Chicopee Fresh work together to increase local foods in Chicopee’s cafeterias. Greta Schwachman, a FoodCorps member, implements taste tests using Harvest of the Month crop recipes, and if they’re successful they will try and incorporate those recipes into the menu. The head chef at Lambert-Lavoie Elementary School, Becky Barrett, tells us that, “you have to just keep on getting [a new recipe] out there.” An initially unpopular recipe can become more favorable simply by offering it several times in the cafeteria.

The Chicopee district is located close to Czajkowski Farms in Hadley, and Joe Czajkowski is able to process fresh vegetables, for example, shredded carrots, carrot coins, and diced butternut squash right on his farm. Greta says this removes the time and labor barrier that some might face when thinking of serving local butternut squash, and “all [the kitchen staff] have to do is coat it and throw it on a tray and roast it.” Because there are limited kitchen staff, especially in the elementary schools, it is extremely useful to have some of the food prepped before arriving in the kitchen.

Promotion

Chicopee takes advantage of the printed promotional materials that Mass. Farm to School provides, hanging posters, and handing out “I tried it” stickers and trading cards. Rachel Harb, Chicopee’s Farm to School Coordinator, says she remembers one student who was so excited about the pear facts he exclaimed, “Wow! There are seven thousand kinds of pears!” The kids also take them home and share them with their families, and at times request recipes from the taste tests so they can try to make them at home as well.

Blank instant camera photo print isolated on white with shadow.Rachel works with Food Service Director, Joanne Lennon to create menus which incorporate the Harvest of the Month ingredient and ensure that it’s used in at least one recipe each week. She says, “we have a blurb about [the ingredient]… on the menu, which goes home with the kids and its on the website.” Greta posts blurbs and photographs about the Harvest of the Month taste tests on Chicopee Fresh’s website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. Chicopee Fresh also has brochures they hand out at school events, such as open houses, which direct people to their website, spreading the word about farm to school.

Greta does taste tests featuring Harvest of the Month items at four Chicopee public schools, including Lambert-Lavoie Elementary. For December’s Harvest of the Month, carrots, Head Chef Becky featured carrot muffins. This recipe is part of a new pilot program Chicopee is launching, Baking in Schools. Lambert-Lavoie is the first school to be participating in this program and once a week Chef Becky makes muffins from scratch featuring local ingredients, such as, sweet potato, pumpkin, zucchini, blueberries, and strawberries. If the kids like the carrot muffins during Greta’s taste test, Chef Becky will add them to her recipe repertoire.

Chicopee is also working on more community outreach and education surrounding the farm to school movement. They had a booth at the 2nd Annual Downtown Get Down (similar to a block party) where they sold smoothies (made with a bicycle blender!) and shared information about Chicopee’s Farm to School programming. They are planning to have another informational event at a local library. Rachel and Becky were able to attend the Farm to School Institute at Shelburne Farms and found it to be very useful in terms of expanding their farm to school reach, “and have a more district-centered approach that combines cafeteria, classroom, and community.”

Advice & Challenges

“It’s important to start off slow,” Becky says, “you can’t bombard [the students] with a whole bunch of new fancy stuff. You have to be consistent with serving it, and do the taste testing because that helps them get familiar with what you’re serving.” Chicopee also recommends trying to work with a farmer that will process some of your produce for you. They suggest you speak with your cook managers and review the menu items with them before confirming each menu, to make sure that new recipes are successful in the kitchen as well as with the students.

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Chicopee tries to pick simple and cost-sensitive recipes for taste testing, as that is the best way to get local produce on the menu. When they do taste testing most kids will try the item, but that’s not always the case when it’s served in the cafeteria line. The taste tests are time consuming, but very effective. Becky says, “There’s a lot of kids that don’t see [certain foods] at home. They might not even know what cauliflower or kale is.” Becky helps them try new foods by labeling carefully, “if you write noodles with parmesan cheese the kids will probably take it. But if they see ‘butternut squash noodles with parmesan cheese’ they automatically think, I’m not going to like it.” She reminds us that you don’t want to be misleading, but you don’t want to scare them away, and that’s a tricky balance!

Recipes

Chicopee FRESH Taste Test Recipe Book by Greta Schwachman, featuring featuring a Green (Kale) Smoothie, Butternut Squash Pasta with Parmesan” and “Sweet Potato Hummus.”