Blog: David Lahey

Instead of buying produce trucked all the way from Cali or Mexico, top-consuming school districts are cultivating relations with local farmers - and even growing their own veggies. David Lahey, dining services director for the Ann Arbor Public Schools, discusses the seeding of the district's nationally recognized Farm to School program.

Post 1: Cafeteria fries be gone! New growth in the Farm to School Movement

I'll start this week's blog with the history of the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) Farm To School Program. The Farm To School Program started in June of 2006. The Farm System Economic Partnership (FSEP) engaged a collaborative group including the Ann Arbor Public Schools, Chartwells (which runs the school lunch program), Project Healthy Schools, Washtenaw County Health Department, and The Agrarian Adventure to explore the feasibility of starting a farm to school program in the district.  

At that meeting we discussed the possibility of using local produce in the public schools and began to define the goals of the group. This was the beginning of the AAPS farm to school collaborative.

Each member of the collaborative had certain tasks that needed to be completed and signed a letter of intention. Chartwells' role was to procure local produce that was safe and handled correctly under strict Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points guidelines.

The collaborative team also defined what "local" meant within the program and guidelines for procuring local produce.  Our guidelines were as follows:

  • We would first attempt to purchase produce within the county.
  • Secondary procurement would stay within 50 miles of Ann Arbor.
  • When necessary we could source produce up to 150 miles from Ann Arbor.
  • Procurement of local produce would not include Canada or Ohio.

The other major goal at this point was to set up a system so that we could identify each item that we used and trace it back to the specific farmer that produced the crop.

Over the next few months Chartwells had to remove obstacles that could hamper the success of the program:

The first was insurance for the farmers.  Originally, each farmer needed $5 million in liability insurance so we could do business with them. This was then lowered to $1 million. Insurance  for the farmer is required so that Chartwells can insure the safety of students and faculty that we feed each and every day.

Finding The Farmers
The next obstacle was to find farmers that wanted to sell to us. This was not an easy task because the local farmers were selling all of their produce at the local farmers markets.  So FSEP and Chartwells got together and located farmers that were willing to sell produce to Chartwells for the local school program.

In September 2006 we had the first Farm To School Day in Ann Arbor.  We decided to start out with things kids would like and would try. The first locally grown item selected was yellow watermelon. Project Healthy School made fliers that identified the produce and showed where it came from as well as some fun facts about yellow watermelon.

Production of cutting fresh products started at 3:30 that morning and continued right up to serving time.  AAPS and Project Healthy Schools found volunteers to go to each school and promote the locally grown item on the day it was served. I think the collaborative and I would say that the day was a success.  We also learned a lot about what did not work, and how to correct it.

In the school year 2007-2008 the collaborative started the next phase of farm to school. This was Farmer In The Classroom. We had an overwhelming positive response from teachers. One of the most difficult things to do was finding farmers that were willing to come into the classroom.  Once farmers were convinced, we had over 25 classroom visits our first year and it has not slowed down since then.