Lettuce was the first product we purchased from local farms. It was the low-hanging fruit – reasonably priced and served regularly in school meals. The only drawback was (perceived) preparation time. It was assumed that dumping a bag of pre-washed, pre-cut lettuce would take significantly longer than washing and chopping fresh head lettuce. Would the kitchen staff rebel?
As it turned out, the kitchen staff was very impressed with the quality of the farm-fresh lettuce and the fact that it remained fresh in the cooler so long. They explained that it also takes time to pick out discolored lettuce from the bag. They were proud and happy to serve it to their students. We had such little negative feedback about the local lettuce, that we were soon serving it to as many schools as we could get it to – first five, then eleven, then fifteen. And finally, after we were awarded a refrigerated truck from the Florida Department of Agriculture, ALL 28,000 students were served fresh, local, often organic, lettuce every week of the growing season (October/November through April), 5-7% from school gardens and greenhouses, most of it from local farms.
The school cafe managers continue to find it worth the time, and the students and staff really appreciate the taste and texture of the fresh, local product. Our chef has created more and more tasty salad recipes, and salad consumption has steadily risen over the last few years. The purchase of the lettuce has a ripple effect that affects folks from all over our community. Students eat fresh, restaurant-quality lettuce in their school meals, the local farmer who won our bid supports his family, and his farm workers benefit from the good working conditions and fair pay that his “Agricultural Justice Project” certification recognizes him for.
Last month, when there was a national recall on romaine lettuce, we realized again the benefits of knowing your farmer and eating close to the source of your food. While consumers and food service establishments everywhere were warned not to eat the romaine, we were able to safely continue enjoying our delicious salad choices. This is why we strive to buy local.