CN-MR-3-Your new 1by Laura Rodley
Are you a Massachusetts farmer that wants to sell your product to a school and don’t know how to do it? Are you a Massachusetts school food service provider and want to know how to connect to a local farmer to provide your wares? All it takes is a phone call to the Amherst-based Massachusetts Farm to School Project to connect you to each other.
For the past three weeks, Michael DeChiara, resident of Shutesbury, MA, has been immersing himself in his new role as the project’s new executive director, overseeing their vital connection as intermediary since Dec. 2.
“To help farms succeed and be part of the local economy providing food to schools, that’s our mission,” said DeChiara. He brings 30 years of working in non-profits to the table, encompassing environmental projects, homelessness and public health in Boston and Western Massachusetts.
His position includes fundraising and outreach, meeting farmers and institutions statewide, promoting farmers’ role in healthy living for the state’s students, providing a variety of products and enhancing community.
Launched in 2004 by Kelly Erwin, who formerly worked for Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture, the project blossomed from 20 farms in 2005 providing food to 32 public school districts, to 114 farms providing food to 231 public school districts in 2011-2012.
“Farmers live in one world. Food servers live in another world,” he said. The project brings these two worlds together, and provides the Massachusetts Farms Directory for Institutional Food Services a list of participating farmers.
Food service directors contact the program outlining their desire to work with a local farm, and staff connect them to the appropriate farmer, hopefully a jumping point for long-term relationships, and vice versa.
For farmers interested in how to present their products to schools with no idea how to proceed, they make the process easy. “It’s very easy, just a conversation, very customized,” he said.
His assistant, Lisa Damon, is the conduit between farmers and schools in Western Massachusetts. Other staff handle Eastern Massachusetts connections.
What schools purchase depends on the district. “If it’s a huge district, most likely farms can’t meet the need,” DeChiara said. However, “Some districts just want to have apples. Other districts want produce through the fall.”
The Amherst school district doesn’t buy direct, contracting out to a food service company, Whitson’s Culinary Group, used by 30 districts, according to DeChiara.
When asked if there are any special requirements farmers must adhere to, he answered that there were no filters, or requirements for the food to be organic, or non-GMO.
David Shearer has been a prominent producer of 30 varieties of apples, peaches, some vegetables and blueberries since 1970 at his farm’s store Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain and has provided apples for schools through the Massachusetts Farm to School Project since its conception. He provides apples, jelly, and cider to the private Eaglebrook School in South Deerfield.
“In the fall we sell 70 to 80 gallons a week, peeled or sliced apples, all ready to be used, for their apple crisp,” or other desserts and whole apples for their tables. “We also do quite a bit for Northfield Mount Hermon, local grammar school and the high school,” referring to Colrain Central School and Mohawk Trail Regional High School in Buckland.
What percentage of his apple harvest does he provide to schools through the project? “In the overall picture, 5 to 10 percent tops. We handle 35,000 bushels of apples,” in a good year.
“It most certainly gives us another outlet close in the area. It works out well for us,” said Shearer, who delivers apples as far as Belchertown and Amherst, occasionally for University of Massachusetts. He also provides apples wholesale for others that provide school produce, such as Hadley’s Joseph Czasjkowski Farm, both a Whitson’s and Massachusetts Farm to School supplier, who provided carrots to 100 schools as their Harvest of the Month vegetable, promoting vegetables in curriculums.
Delivery distances and amounts ordered are vital considerations. Clark Brothers Orchards of Ashfield has supplied apples in the past to the private schools Academy of Charlemont and Northfield Mount Hermon. Depending on the year, they sell 20,000 to 50,000 bushels — two to five million apples — to local markets, and pears, peaches and grapes.
“We don’t deal in small amounts very much. We deliver truckloads to Whole Foods and Trader Joes. We aren’t set up to deal with delivering small quantities that people have been looking for. It’s not that we wouldn’t do it,” he said. He would be delighted if a school was willing to pick up a bushel or two. “If someone came to pick some up, we’d sell them.”
Anne Diemand of Diemand Farm in Wendell has been selling free range turkeys to UMass since the account was set up after being contacted by the project’s representative at its conception. “They’ll call us up and say we want 2,000 pounds; that’s 100, 20 pound turkeys.” Four to five times a year, it adds up to 10,000 pounds of turkey, almost 10 percent of the 4,000 turkeys she raises. “It’s a wonderful account. One thing, it enabled us, helped us, in other ways. They want them frozen, so we dress them in the summer, and have fields open where I can raise other turkeys for Thanksgiving. It’s been a really cool thing.”
Just what DeChiara likes best, “Having local agricultural be vibrant and economically vibrant.”
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