Lake-to-River Delivers Fresh Food to Schools

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — When Boardman Local Schools placed its first order with Lake-to-River Food Hub a few years ago, Pat Rosenthal knew she had to be the one to make the delivery.

With three cases of fresh romaine lettuce grown nearby and eight bushels of apples in her car, Rosenthal, the co-founder of Common Wealth Inc., drove from its office near Wick Park to the suburb just south of Youngstown. Common Wealth is the parent of Lake-to-River.

“It was one of the most exciting days of work I’ve ever had, seeing something move from an idea to something that actually works,” she says. “I never expected anyone to buy right away.”

Last school year, a dozen schools in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties – including both Youngstown and Warren City Schools – bought fresh food from Lake-to-River.

A major part of the Food to Schools program is reconfiguring the distribution network that schools use to get their food, says Lake-to-River manager Gianna Cioffi.

Most schools buy their food from distributors such as Sysco or Gordon Food Service, she explains, distributors that ship the food grown elsewhere in the country.

“Rather than schools placing an order with Sysco or GFS, they call us and ask what’s available,” she says, noting that Lake-to-River can’t meet all of their needs.

“They may even tell us well in advance what they’ll need, Cioffi adds, “so we can see how the farmers could help meet that need.”

The biggest challenge is getting schools to enter the program, says Jim Converse, the other co-founder of Common Wealth. The schools remind him of their limited budgets, he says, and some in the program might drop out later this year.

“The food service companies that are around are kind of ‘Walmartizing’ the whole food economy with a rush to the bottom to make everything as cheap as possible,” Converse says. “You don’t have to spend top dollar, but you can at least spend some money and have better food in your children’s schools.”

Converse cites the process distributors use to ship apples, the food most commonly bought by schools. The fruit is picked in Washington state just before it’s ripe, loaded into trucks where ether is introduced to finish the ripening as the trucks haul it to schools throughout the United States.

“When [schools] got local apples, the kids would eat the whole thing instead of taking a few bites and throwing it away,” Converse says.

“It was a pretty quick acceptance in the schools. And the food-service ladies were thrilled. Their job is to prepare food, not throw it away.”

All segments within Common Wealth and Lake-to-River have a common goal: education.

“We’ve had good success in taking farmers to the schools and telling the kids, ‘Here’s the guy who grew the chickens that produced the wings you had for lunch today,’ ” says Melissa Miller, president of the Lake-to-River Food Co-Operative.

“And we teach them how it affects our health and the health of the community economically,” Cioffi adds.

The benefits of locally grown food are well-documented. Fruits eaten past their peak ripeness have lost some of the vitamins that their fresher counterparts still have, according to a 2013 article by researchers at Michigan State University.

Researchers as Clemson University reported in 2011 that most food is transported about 1,500 miles before it reaches consumers.

The effects of that much time and distance are something that Lake-to-River works to minimize, Rosenthal says.

“Even if there are 20 farmers that deliver their food to all the places that order from them, it doesn’t make sense for them to do it when we can aggregate it and distribute it with less impact,” she says.

Economically, increasing consumption of locally grown food could result in as many as 27,000 new jobs, Converse asserts.

A study he participated in found that between 2% and 3% of the food eaten in northeastern Ohio is grown within the 16-county region. Were that 3% increased to 25%, the greater demand would lead to his projected number of job created.

“That’s pretty significant and will probably be a long time coming,” he says. “But even if we could get the number up to 10%, that’s 8,000 jobs. That’s a bit more feasible.”

And by having the farmers visit schools not only to talk to students about their diets but school administrators as well, it helps build the network and get people of all ages involved in the local- food movement, which ultimately, all say, is the goal of Lake-to-River Food Hub.

“The farmers are really willing to be part of the educational piece,” Cioffi says. “So now, not only are the schools investing in their business, but the farmers are now able to meet new people and develop relationships that build out from there.”

All parties benefit, she says.

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