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National Farm to School Network


Passion, persistence, and patience in New Jersey

NFSN Staff Monday, June 01, 2015
By Jaime Lockwood, Development Director  

Photo courtesy of New Jersey Farm to School Network

Social media can be a powerful tool for change by connecting people with similar passions and complementary talents. Tony Kowalak and Steve Vande Vrede are a perfect example of this. Tony is the Sodexo Food Service Director in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District of central New Jersey. Steve is a farmer at Edible Garden in Belvidere, New Jersey. The two met in 2013 while participating in New Jersey Farm to School Network’s “I Tweet for Food” campaign. Noticing each other’s tweets about the importance of getting locally grown food in schools, they formed a partnership that is now bearing fruit. 

Over the past several years, Tony has been an internal advocate for sustainable practices within Sodexo, a company that provides food services to schools across the globe. Tony has also been a farm to school advocate, and has worked to establish farm to school programs across his home state of New Jersey. Through this work, he became familiar with a project in Rhode Island where local producers and food service companies worked collectively and intentionally to overcome distribution hurdles and help local produce find its way into schools across the state. Tony was fascinated by the idea and wondered how New Jersey schools could leverage similar partnerships, particularly in the winter when local fields are dormant and food must be imported. When he met Steve, who specializes in greenhouse growing and produces year-round, the two began investigating what it would take to get Steve’s lettuce into schools across New Jersey. 

Initially, the task seemed daunting. There were distribution channels that needed to be tweaked, liability insurance that needed to be increased and pilot school sites developed. With the help of others, including Beth Feehan of the New Jersey Farm to School Network and our New Jersey State Lead, Edible Gardens won approval by Sodexo and their primary distributor, PFG, to start moving Steve’s lettuce into a handful of school districts. Beginning in January, lucky students in East Orange, Long Branch and West Windsor-Plainsboro school districts began eating lettuce grown within their state – in the dead of winter. 

This new partnership is a big victory for Tony, Steve and students in New Jersey. School food can be incredibly complicated, with many layers of funding and regulation that dictate what is served in the cafeteria. And, schools that work with distributors are often limited by what is available through their established partnerships. But, as this example in New Jersey shows, when schools, distributors and producers come together to bring more local options in to the lunchroom, students can enjoy fresh, local food year-round. 

New Jersey State Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher visits Catrambone Elementary School’s kitchen with students to see how local lettuce is used for lunch. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Farm to School Network)

Now that he’s been through it himself, Tony graciously shares his process with others to help them understand how they can overcome challenges facing their own local procurement projects. When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, he had this advice for people working to connect local producers with schools: “Passion, perseverance and patience is the winning combination,” he said. “Projects like this don’t happen overnight, but if you stick with it, you will ultimately prevail and know that you’ve done the right thing for kids and for farmers in your community.”

In April, a celebration was held at Catrambone Elementary School in Long Branch. New Jersey State Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher and other representatives from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Sodexo management, and New Jersey farm to school champions visited the school to highlight the program and participate in a lunch where lettuce from Edible Gardens was featured. Tony, Steve and all those involved hope that their lessons learned and success will inspire similar partnerships and programs across the country. 


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