By. Karen Dittrich, Director of Marketing, Whitsons Culinary Group
Whitsons Culinary Group is a provider of fresh nutrition services for public schools throughout the Northeast and strongly supports the farm-to-school movement. At Whitsons, we are committed to serving wholesome, high-quality meals prepared with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. To support that commitment, we have implemented programs to incorporate local foods, along with food and nutrition education programs that encourage students to make healthy food choices.
Whitsons has been collaborating with local farms to supply districts with fresh produce as part of our Farm to School program. Our purchasing team works closely with farmers and suppliers to find ingredients that are locally sourced, all-natural, and organic or non-GMO, whenever possible. We believe that developing local partnerships is a great way to provide high quality school meal programs while also supporting the local community. There are numerous benefits to purchasing locally, including stimulation of local economies by supporting family farms, a cleaner environment with less fuel burned from shipping, and providing products that are fresher and healthier. Overall, we source 52% of our product mix locally, either through distributors or by developing direct relationships with local vendors.
“Purchasing locally grown food benefits everyone. It looks and tastes better so students enjoy it. The food is fresh, all natural, and organic whenever possible, so administrators and parents can feel good about what students are eating,” said Kelly Friend, Chief Operating Officer at Whitsons School Nutrition. “We also encourage our clients to introduce on-site gardens to their school communities to both educate students on growing their own foods and offer in-house organic ingredients.”
Whitsons’ Farm to School Initiatives
In keeping with our local commitment, we developed Greenleaf Cuisine®, Whitsons’ local produce program. As part of our local initiative, we partner with our suppliers to offer local day promotions, featuring different fresh fruits and vegetables and other local ingredients as part of our menu promotions. The goal is to provide students with the very best produce the region has to offer, fresh from farm to fork.
Whitsons was also one of the first food service companies to partner with the Massachusetts Farm to School Project on its statewide Harvest of the Month campaign which is incorporated into existing nutrition education programs. This farm to school campaign promotes a different locally grown food each month in schools in an effort to increase student consumption of fruits and vegetables, encourage healthy food choices, and increase students’ exposure to healthy, nutritious foods. Since first participating in the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, we have launched a company-wide Harvest of the Month program for all our districts.
Our Elmer’s Organic Garden initiative was developed to connect students to the foods they eat through school gardens. School gardens enable students to taste fruits and vegetables that they have grown themselves and make the farm to plate connection in their school cafeterias. Indoor vertical gardens are also available as part of this program to bring the garden experience indoors for students during the entire school year.
“The goal of these food education programs is to provide the very best produce that the region has to offer and teach students about the farm to fork process,” said Friend. “When kids know where their food is coming from, it can make healthy eating more fun!”
Farm to School Best Practices
These are a few examples of what some of our districts are doing to promote farm to school initiatives.
Attleboro Public Schools, Attleboro, Massachusetts and Easton Public Schools, Easton, Massachusetts
This year, Attleboro and Easton schools will be ordering produce directly from Langwater Farms in North Easton, Massachusetts. Langwater Farm is a 100-acre, certified organic farm with 50 acres in vegetable production that has been in operation since the early 1900s. In 2014, the farm expanded their production to produce delicious, certified organic vegetables on another historic piece of farmland in Easton. This enabled them to expand their production of local, organic vegetables by close to 50%.
York Suburban School District, York, Pennsylvania
Earlier this year, York Suburban School District received a farm to school grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Division of Food and Nutrition. The purpose of this grant is to provide students with access to fresh, healthy food sourced locally and to implement farm to school activities such as student taste-testing of local products, farm-related field trips, school garden activities, and efforts to incorporate local products in school meals.
According to Helen Heidler, Food Service Director for Whitsons Culinary Group at York Suburban School District, the grant was written to support local vegetable tasting events. These events included:
- Where have you Bean? – Featuring different types of beans.
- Lettuce Entertain You! – Focusing on a variety of leafy greens in a chef-created lettuce wrap.
- We are Rooting for You! – Introducing students to different types of root vegetables.
Once students tried the food samples, they were given a sticker and were encouraged to place it on the “I tried it” board to indicate if they liked it, loved it, or it is not for me. Students enjoyed this activity and it allowed them to try foods that they may not have tried or even seen before. Local area farmers were also invited to attend the events and information about their farms along with nutrition details were on display in the cafeteria as well.
Another event included a contest created for students to name a baby dairy calf. This contest was a fun way to promote the importance of drinking milk to students.
This year, plans are underway to partner with Brown Orchard, a local family orchard that has a pit master. The pit master will bring his smoker to York’s secondary schools and prepare fresh pressed apple cider infused pork prepared on smoked Applewood from the orchard for students. Several fresh apple varieties, as well as some garden fresh grilled and roasted veggies, will also be served.
Helen and her team partner with York County Buy Fresh Buy Local and the York County Food Alliance each year to plan amazing events for National Farm to School Month!
Haverhill Public Schools, Haverhill, Massachusetts
At the Learning Garden at Haverhill High School, students with special needs will once again be harvesting their produce and preparing it for submission and judging at Topsfield Fair – America’s oldest agricultural fair. Para-educator Nancy Burke and students at Haverhill High School have received local, state, and national news coverage and honors after renovating a neglected school courtyard into a handicap-accessible outdoor learning lab.
Whitsons donated funds for transportation for students and their educators to attend the fair to see their produce on display and celebrate their wins. “As a food service provider, Whitsons Culinary Group is not only focused on providing healthy and nutritious meals to students, but we are passionate about providing the necessary education to students about our food system, so they can become responsible adults that value both themselves and the environment,” said Bill Whitcomb Jr. “The opportunities that school gardens present to students are amazing and we need more people like Nancy promoting them.”
In 2016, students won first place blue ribbons for their plum tomatoes, purple potatoes, white potatoes, and sunflowers. Whitsons is pleased to support this initiative and hopes to see another win for students at this year’s fair!
At Whitsons, we are committed to the power and influence of local farms. Our goal is to provide farm fresh produce while teaching students the importance of eating wholesome foods and being environmentally responsible. We are committed to supporting local farmers by sourcing ingredients locally whenever available and in season. We have made it our mission to empower farmers by either dealing with them directly or working with them to add their products into our distribution channels.
This all leads to fresher, tastier, and better-for-you choices for our young customers, while helping to conserve the earth’s resources one meal at a time.
About the Author
Driven by a passion for food and excellence, Karen Dittrich’s interest in the food and hospitality industry began while working in the family restaurant and hotel business. She has spent more than 25 years leveraging her collaborative leadership style, operational foodservice experience, and marketing skills to grow foodservice organizations.
In 2016, Karen joined Whitsons Culinary Group as the Director of Marketing. She is responsible for developing and overseeing the implementation of Whitsons’ core brand strategy, marketing programs, and public relations for all business lines. Karen holds a bachelor’s degree in market research from Clarkson University and a degree in culinary arts from The Culinary Institute of America.