Concord School District food services director puts focus on local foods
Native corn harvested in Gilford, fresh salsa made in Bow and farm-raised beef from Loudon.
These aren’t daily specials at a local restaurant. They are the result of John Lash’s first year as food services director in the Concord School District.
Lash, who studied culinary arts in Pennsylvania, has led a crusade to bring more local, fresh foods to Concord students. The first year included serving thousands of pounds of fresh meat and produce, and its momentum will help carry the department as it looks to expand local products while balancing diets and its budget.
“We want to cook as much from scratch as we can. We want to make sure we get away from as many processed foods as possible,” said Lash, who came to Concord after two years in Gilford. “The program we are developing here is replicable at any small-scale or large-scale district. If Concord can do it with our 5,000 students, other districts can do it.”
Food sales and federal reimbursements for free and reduced lunch are the primary revenue for the food service department’s $1.78 million budget, half of which is used to buy food. Of the remaining money, most of the balance pays for salary and benefits for the district’s 20-plus food service employees.
This year, the district agreed to buy its meat from Miles Smith Farm in Loudon; tacos, salsa and sour cream from Mitchell’s Fresh in Bow; and local corn and produce from Beans and Greens in Gilford. The result is fresher and healthier food, said Lash, who was recognized as food service professional of the year at the 2014 New England Meat Conference in Concord.
To try to keep food costs stable, Lash works with providers to determine a price the district and the seller can afford.
“For the year they have been with us, it has been incredible,” said Carole Soule, owner of Miles Smith Farm, which has sold between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds of meat to Concord schools for tacos, burgers, meatballs and other dishes. The farm, which also sells to Durham-area Oyster River School District, agreed to sell Concord the meat at a discount – about half of what it could get at retail.
“John is doing an incredible job, and we are keeping our prices as low as we can,” she said. “We need help from supporters, and we need to raise awareness. That’s the most important thing.”
Even a slight price increase could price the farm out of the district’s means, Soule said.
“We really want kids to eat healthy, and have healthy meat and have healthy animals. It all works together,” she said. “We will still keep our prices as low as we possibly can because we know his budget has restraints on it.”
The district serves about 2,000 meals a day for an average of about 360,000 annually, Lash said. The target cost of each tray is $1.75, Lash said. Twenty cents for milk and 20 cents for an apple means little wiggle room when finding menu items with an eye on nutrition and cost.
Free food provided by the Federal Commodity Program is a valuable option in keeping tray costs low. While some of the food may not be the highest quality, items such as brown rice, beans, tortillas and cheese are put to good use in Concord’s kitchens.
A popular dish such as the bean and cheese burrito, which is made mostly with free federal food, costs about 60 cents to make. The savings allow the district to offer more costly, and locally sourced, dishes such as the “Bag O’Taco,” which uses Mitchell’s fresh salsa, sour cream and lettuce. The dish costs about $3 to make, Lash said. “That 60-cent tray helps offset the cost of these more expensive dishes.”
“When you are cooking for 400 kids, efficiency is key,” he added.
Lash is also organizing what he calls the New Hampshire Corn Initiative. This year, the district bought 3,000 pounds of native corn grown in Gilford. The corn comes already shucked and taken off the husk, making it easier for cooks to prepare.
“It’s such an attractive product. I’ve talked with other school districts who might be interested in purchasing it for the following year,” he said.
Concord isn’t the only district focusing on a locally grown menu, said Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of agricultural development at the state Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food. Programs such as the University of New Hampshire’s Farm to School Program have helped foster a better understanding.
“There are certainly other schools around the state that are making a commitment to buy local product from local farms,” McWilliam Jellie said. “A lot of schools are looking more closely at how they offer local foods.”
The reasons include the desire to support area businesses, the idea of connecting students with the origins of their food and keeping students healthy, she said.
In Concord, Lash said he hopes to carry momentum from this year to next year.
“We’re still far from where I envisioned, but we’ve mad a lot of good changes this year,” he said.
Lash will take part in a panel discussion tonight at Red River Theatres after the 6:30 showing of Fed Up. The film takes a critical look at processed foods, saturated fats, sugars and the country’s food production as a whole.
(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)