After only four months of the Sangamon County-sponsored Farm to School pilot program in Pawnee, all partners are celebrating great success as the school has made significant strides in scratch-cooking as well as local food procurement.
“The reactions we’ve heard from the school leaders, parents and kids has been amazing so far,” said Andy Van Meter, county board chairman. “Our county board members are very engaged in this project. It is not always easy to change the ways you have been serving food in the school cafeteria, but the enthusiasm and dedication to this project has been unwavering from everyone involved.”
“It is so exciting to have this happening in the district I represent, my hometown and the school I graduated from,” said Jeff Thomas, county board member. “We are so proud of everyone involved who are making this so successful from the very beginning. To be able to serve healthy, delicious food to our kids as well as support local farmers is a win-win.”
This pilot program is scheduled to last three years, and the school has already incorporated locally-sourced radishes, carrots and lettuces on the salad bar. Additional from-scratch menu items include sausage patties, scrambled eggs, pancakes, broccoli cheddar soup, chicken quesadillas and more.
“As part of the program, we conduct taste tests to engage students and receive feedback on scratch-cooked items, such as roasted acorn squash and homemade meatballs with marinara sauce,” added Kedra Brown, lead chef at Pawnee Schools. “We want to make sure that the kids will eat this beautiful, locally sourced food and not have it end up in the trash can. That’s one of the secrets to our success.”
“People bring you food and you have to try it and they ask you questions and you answer them. They put it on the menu if you like it and if people say they want it on the menu,” explained Warren, third grade student at Pawnee.
“My favorite was the coleslaw. I liked the flavor, and it wasn’t too strong. I also like the texture of it,” added Molly, fifth grade student.
Sangamon County has contracted with Beyond Green Partners, which partners with the school district to help train them, procure local foods, and help monitor waste and the budget. The goal is to cook alongside the cafeteria team for a three-year program and then leave the team and kitchen self-sufficient.
Pawnee Schools has set a goal to purchase 30 percent of its food purchases locally. In November 2023, it purchased 41.1% from local farmers/vendors, including milk purchases from Prairie Farms, eggs, raw chicken, raw beef and produce from Bland Family Farms and produce from Suttill’s Gardens. Other local purchases have been made from Janie’s Mill and Mueller Farms.
For this project, local is defined as food that is grown, produced, or harvested in Illinois, with preference given to the Sangamon Valley Region, defined as the nine-county region surrounding Springfield: Cass, Christian, Logan, Macon, Macoupin, Menard, Montgomery, Morgan and Sangamon counties.
“It’s great to expand where our produce is going and have children seeing more than what they usually see in the grocery store,” said Caitlyn Simpson, farmer at Suttill’s Gardens located in Sangamon County.
In addition to increasing local food purchases, the school’s other program goals are to increase preferred food and scratch-cooking, increase eater satisfaction, remain cost-neutral and increase staff satisfaction.
“We have worked with a lot of schools around the country, and the enthusiasm, work-ethic and support from local leaders here is hard to match,” said Greg Christian, Beyond Green Partners. “We already believe that Pawnee will be a leader in this Farm to Table movement for years and years to come.”
Enhancing rural-urban initiatives was recommended by the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln in its “Next 10” visioning report in 2021. The Next 10 is a series of ideas and initiatives to improve the quality of life in the Greater Springfield Area.