How a food hub is helping schools dive in with local supplies

The Kansas City Food Center helps area schools source local produce for their nutrition programs. | Photo courtesy of David Eulitt

Pop into one of the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District cafeterias in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and you’ll likely see students snacking on local produce.

The district’s farm-to-school efforts have been boosted over the past few years thanks to a partnership with The Kansas City Food Hub, a farmer-owned cooperative located in nearby Kansas City.

Food Hub was founded in 2016. Initially, it only worked with local restaurants and individual consumers, but always wanted to expand into the K-12 space.

“Those who have been running the food center have always had a strong interest in providing local food to the community period, but also in feeding the children,” says sales and marketing manager Marty Bodenhamer.

The food hub officially began working with schools just before COVID and has since grown to provide fresh produce to thousands of students in the Kansas City metro area.

Meeting with schools where they are

Today, the center has partnerships with several local school districts.

“We’re working with about eight or nine school districts right now,” Bodenhamer says, adding that he’s currently in talks with about 12 additional districts that want to potentially partner with the center in the future.

Some districts may be hesitant to include local produce on their menus because of their size or lack of staff, Bodenhamer says, but she stresses that the center is happy to work to accommodate schools as best as possible, especially when it comes to the ordering process.

“We’re a small company,” she says. “So we can turn around.”

Managers in one area, for example, place their own orders each week, while another area prefers to receive a list every Monday from Bodenhamer showing what is available and then selecting the items they want from it.

The Food Center also works with the districts to make last-minute substitutes for produce when needed and will send recipes with the produce to provide menu inspiration.

“We try to accommodate people to make it as simple as possible,” says Bodenhammer.

Serving fresh produce

The participating districts use the produce in different ways. At the DeSoto School District, the nutrition team offers a different type of food from the center every Friday during the fall and spring seasons.

Students can sample the featured ingredient, and the food center also provides farmer’s market cards that tell students more about the farmer who grows whatever produce is featured that week.

Showing only one type of produce each week has allowed the team to continue to offer farm-to-school options even though they are understaffed.

“We don’t do a lot, but we still incorporate some local products,” says Director of Food Service Jolene Boldner. “So we still do farm-to-school, even though not every single food item we serve is local food.”

In the Blue Springs School District and Lee’s Summit, local, downtown produce is featured heavily in the salad bar, and both districts have seen an increase in salad bar participation since the introduction of fresh ingredients.

“The kids are noticing the difference,” says Leah Ann Luteye, Blue Springs School Food Services Supervisor.

Lee’s Summit also incorporates some of the local produce into some of its menu items, including muffins, pasta salads and coleslaw.

Students enjoy learning how their food is grown, says Lori Danella, Lee’s Summit’s director of food service, and she thinks they can feel the difference when local produce is on the menu.

“Honestly, I think so [students] enjoy these [local] elements more,” she says. “If you look at our photos on Facebook, you can see the smiles and thumbs up – they say a picture is worth a thousand words.”

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