Rolling up to the parking lot of West Hertel Academy in Buffalo on Oct. 7, the Buffalo Public Schools’ (BPS) brand new food truck brought eye-popping style and hot, wholesome local food to students and families in the West Buffalo inner city neighborhood.
With a splashy paint scheme designed by a local artist, the “Farm to School to You” food truck – developed with input from Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) – will visit sites throughout the city to bring free meals to families in need, regardless of whether they have children enrolled in the district. BPS is currently offering online only instruction due to COVID-19 pandemic.
“We want to provide an opportunity for families to help meet their budget needs,” said Bridget O’Brien-Wood, BPS food service director. “Seventy-six percent of our students qualify for a free meal, so we know families are facing big challenges right now. We are determined to get this farm-to-school food truck out on the road to offer our families a hot, nutritious lunch.”
When BPS students return to in-person instruction, the food truck will rotate through the district’s 16 high schools and its various child nutrition programs, including afterschool and summer food service programs. BPS food service workers will serve hot lunches made with locally grown ingredients, and teachers and staff will provide educational opportunities linked to the district’s farm-to-school programming.
One of those opportunities: experiential learning for culinary arts students in Buffalo. They’ll develop farm-to-table menus, then serve locally sourced items from the food truck at Buffalo-area child and adult care program sites.
“Food trucks have become an integral part of the nation’s culinary fabric, and we are excited to be able to offer our students this amazing opportunity,” said Katie Schuta, principal at Buffalo School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management. “We want to keep our students abreast of the current trends in the culinary industry and this combines two of the industry’s hottest movements: food trucks and farm-to-table.”
CCE’s Harvest New York agricultural economic development team has been helping to pave the way for the “Farm to School to You” food truck. Specialist Cheryl Thayer and farm-to-institution coordinator Becky O’Connor are heavily involved in the district’s farm-to-school program, and helped BPS conceptualize the project. Thayer and O’Connor worked with local farmers to procure fresh produce, dairy and meat products for the entire BPS farm-to -school program.
“The Buffalo farm-to-school team saw the food truck as a literal and figurative vehicle to address persistent challenges in their farm-to-school program, which include forging a deeper connection to the classroom, providing a more effective means to engage the community, and offering a solution to expand the program beyond just the school lunch program,” Thayer said. “It also amplifies the district’s ability to use and purchase more locally grown and produced food.”
During the 2019-20 school year, the Buffalo farm to school program spent more than $2 million – more than 40% of its lunch expenditures – on New York produce, juice, dairy and beef products. Meals from the food truck include nachos, hot dogs and rice bowls, which use beef raised by Empire State Farms and beans grown by Genesee Valley Bean Co. The tomatoes, lettuce and bell peppers used in these menu items are from Eden Valley Growers, a vegetable cooperative in Eden, New York, and Groundwork Market Garden, an urban farm in Buffalo.
“The district’s commitment to support beginner and urban farmers is an important one,” Thayer said. “Those types of operations typically struggle to enter institutional markets because they can’t meet volume and distribution needs. Yet, they are located in the district’s backyard and are critically important members of our community food system.”
R.J. Anderson is a writer, photographer and communications team leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension.