PLAIN TWP. — This fall, Plain Local students might notice their lunchtime salads are crisper, their carrots brighter and their peaches juicier.
Plain Local cafeterias are working to serve students more local food, including fruits and vegetables grown by farmers in Northeast Ohio.
The goal is to one day soon reach 100 percent locally accessible food, said Jennifer Rex, director of food services for the school system. Some produce, such as bananas, can't be grown in Ohio, she added.
“We're going to cultivate this mindset that you can provide local (food),” Rex said.
The district recently became the first in Stark County to work with Farm Fare, a Cleveland start-up that uses technology to connect growers with customers. The partnership will allow Plain to offer locally grown produce year-round.
Plain already offers students milk from local dairies, bread from Nickles Bakery and apples from Arrowhead Orchard in Paris Township. They recently partnered with Quarry Hill Orchards in Erie County to buy seasonal fruit, including apples, cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines and pears.
But providing year-round local produce has been trickier, Rex said.
“I know how important it is. And I know kids today, if they're eating the salad out of the bag, they really do not know fresh produce,” she said. “But when they taste the apple from Arrowhead versus an apple from (the grocery store), they can taste the difference.”
The district isn't alone in its mission to eat locally.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its Farm to School program aimed, in part, at bringing healthy, local food to school cafeterias.
According to the USDA's 2015 Farm to School Census, 27 percent of Ohio school districts participated in the program during the 2013-2014 school year, and 44 percent of districts surveyed said they planned to increase local food purchases.
Farm Fare bridges the gap between local food producers and wholesale buyers, such as schools and restaurants.
The business-to-business company works with regional food hubs, including StarkFresh, said Laura Adiletta, one of Farm Fare's co-founders.
Food hubs — often small warehouses or aggregators — work directly with farmers to handle some of the business aspects of selling food.
Farm Fare created software to help those food hubs with distribution and logistics, Adiletta said.
Customers use the company's app or website to access a catalog of food grown or produced within 100 miles of Cleveland. Customers place an order from farmers all over Northeast Ohio, such as carrots from Oberlin or strawberries from Canton. Farm Fare then handles ordering, invoicing and delivery, she said.
Farm Fare's customers include restaurants, school districts and universities.
“It's really great for schools who have limited capacity to chase down local products, which, historically, has been managed by having lots of relationships,” Adiletta said.
By making it more efficient to purchase local food, Farm Fare is helping to lower the cost of buying local without hurting farmers' bottom line, she said. “One thing we're really focused on is that real impact buying local has on your community.”
“If you have 80 cents to spend on a tomato from a large corporation or $1 on one from a farm in a backyard, that dollar has so much more of an impact economically,” she added.
Some of the food hubs offer hydroponic food so customers can access fresh ingredients year-round.
The quality of local food is “typically phenomenal,” Adiletta said.
“Generally, everything is harvested after an order is placed. Compare that to apples you're getting from Washington or lettuce from California. Those are harvested a long, long time before you get them” she said.
“The shelf life is tremendous,” she added. Farm Fare's hydroponic farmers harvest lettuce just before it's picked up for delivery. It has a shelf life of 21 days.
“Imagine lettuce from a grocery store lasting 21 days. It won't happen,” she said.
Rex encountered hydroponic produce at a local food conference earlier this year. She was struck by the difference between lettuce grown in Northeast Ohio and what she normally picks up at the grocery store.
“The lettuce was so green — the greenest green I've ever seen,” she said. “You have to know it's completely healthy,” she said.
It's a chance to introduce students to different ingredients. Instead of adding tomatoes to tossed salads in the winter, they could try seasonal ingredients like mushrooms, she said.
“More seasonal, more fresh. Maybe even try some stuff we haven't done before,” she said.
Rex is eager to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the lunch line. Students who are picky eaters might change their minds when they taste the difference.
“We're really excited to see schools like Plain Local putting a really good product in front of the students that they're serving,” Adiletta said. “That's energy that's fueling them not just for the second half of the day, but setting up habits that will make them a healthier eater for life. And everybody benefits from that.”