Schools across Virginia are trying to bring healthier, fresher food to their students—and Loudoun is leading the way.
Times have changed in schools, as many home economics and cooking classes are no longer part of the required curriculum. “That was the place you learned about nutrition, along with cooking at home with parents and sitting down at dinner,” said Becky Domokos-Bays, Loudoun County Public Schools school nutrition services director who last week won national accolades for her work in the field. “Nowadays, that doesn’t happen. Many people don’t know how to cook anymore,” she said.
Creating nutritious food options for students by getting local produce such as fresh strawberries, apples, pears, carrots, cauliflower, beets, potatoes or lettuce into schools takes a lot of coordination. It requires a large-scale effort from state, local and regional governments and school officials, farmers, food distributors, teachers, parents and the community at large to make a real difference in the international movement toward healthier eating.
That was the message of state and local officials during a Virginia Farm to School regional meeting on Tuesday in the garden lab at Frederick Douglass Elementary School. Loudoun’s school system is one of the standout programs in the National Farm to School Network—an effort spanning 23.6 million students at more than 42,500 schools across 46 states—and Douglass is a standout within Loudoun.
A Statewide Goal
Virginia First Lady Pamela Northam is leading an effort to increase local food purchases to $22 million or more by 2022 within the state’s school nutrition programs. She set the goal in March during the annual Virginia Farm-to-School Conference in Hampton. Statewide, there are now more than 500 schools with Farm to School programs, according to Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, who, along with Northam and Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring, is leading efforts to reach the $22 million goal.
Local food purchases by Virginia schools have doubled since 2014, from $7.7 million to $15.4 million in 2017, according to state figures. Farm to School programs and other efforts that connect farmers and food producers with schools are credited with this increase.
The Virginia Department of Education has also implemented programs such as Virginia Harvest of the Month, which features 12 seasonal fruits and vegetables that farmers can grow for use in schools. “The hope in implementing conferences like this is that everyone leaves inspired to try something new and that children, farmers and farming communities will thrive as a result,” said Trista Grigsby, Farm to School specialist with the Virginia Department of Education.
Grigsby said the regional meetings are mainly about bringing everyone together. Tuesday’s meeting at Douglass—which included representatives from the City of Alexandria and counties like Fairfax, Fauquier, Rappahannock Page—was one of eight held during April and May.
“The Virginia Farm to School network meetings invite all stakeholders—school nutrition professionals, students, parents, farmers, educators, and food distributors—to determine region-specific objectives which elevate Farm to School activities in cafeterias, classrooms, and school gardens so kids can connect with food and farming in meaningful and delicious ways,” Grigsby said.
Following three more regional meetings throughout the next two weeks, state leaders will consolidate the information and “share each region’s goals with all stakeholders and continue developing partnerships, resources and trainings to help meet the identified objectives and First Lady Northam’s overall goal,” Grigsby said.
Footing the Food
Domokos-Bays described some of the ways where it may be challenging to hit the statewide mark. One of the big areas is infrastructure, or the process of transporting the fresh food to the schools. For example, “we found that most of the strawberry patches are pick-your-own,” limiting the options for the school system. In addition, Loudoun schools must follow U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety guidelines that can hamper many well-meaning ideas of how to get fresh food on the plates of students.
Another issue is supply. While there are 1,400 farms in Loudoun, some are very small. There are more than 82,000 students in the county’s school system. “We are the biggest restaurant in town,” Domokos-Bays said. She used an example of an agreement with Wegmeyer Farms, which supplies strawberries for the program. Wegmeyer only has the capacity to supply strawberries for 25 of the school system’s 92 schools.
“We have a lot of work to do in Virginia [to meet the statewide goal],” Grigsby said. “It’s an ambitious goal, but I think we can do it,” she told meeting attendees. With the momentum from the March conference in Hampton and the growing Farm to School Network through the regional meetings, “we hope it won’t be long before every single child in Virginia has regular access to fresh, healthy, Virginia-grown food.”
About five years ago, there were 30 active gardens in Loudoun schools. Today, there are 54 gardens across the 92-school system. Two of the people who helped expand the program are Domokos-Bays and Stefanie Dove, coordinator of marketing and community outreach. Back then, the school system started a local Farm to School program through a USDA grant program, and administrators travelled around to various schools to assess the situation. “Schools weren’t really talking to each other,” Dove said.
School district staff members began what Domokos-Bays describes as a “nutrition education intervention.” This concept involves more than just increasing the amount of nutritious options in the schools for children—it takes an entire community effort involving teachers, farmers and parents, both inside and outside schools.
“I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made,” she said. Loudoun’s school system has partnered with numerous organizations, including Loudoun Hunger Relief, the Audubon Society and local farms such as Wegmeyer Farms in Hamilton and Potomac Vegetable Farms in Purcellville.
One example of a successful partnership involves picking strawberries at Wegmeyer Farms in the early morning and getting them into schools by 10 a.m. to serve with the day’s lunch. “You can’t really get any fresher than that,” Domokos-Bays said.
Another key tool to move these objectives forward was to increase project-based learning to teach various skills to students, teachers and, ultimately, parents how to promote nutrition education. “Project-based learning allows students to think bigger and think about the community,” Domokos-Bays said.
The school district also reached out to farmers to partner on educational programs. One of the more successful efforts involved producing Loudoun farmer trading cards and having farmers visit schools to help students understand plant science. While the first year produced a dozen trading cards, the school system has produced nine to 12 cards each year since.
Dove chose Frederick Douglass Elementary School as the site for the Northern Virginia regional meeting because of its “premier garden lab,” she said. Douglass is one of two premier sites in the county, along with Park View High School in Sterling, home of the “Patriot Patch” garden.
“Every classroom is embedded in the garden [at Douglass],” Dove said, crediting teacher Marykirk Cunningham and her family for establishing the program at the school. Situated in an interior courtyard, the lab features a new pergola, a large table with seating for 30, 11 raised beds, four herb boxes and five ground beds. At the garden stacks, students can scan a QR code with their tablets to find out more about the plants.
Dove said that by bringing together all the parties involved to Douglass, she hopes that they can better understand the barriers and regulations that the school system must follow.
Domokos-Bays and her staff’s efforts have received national attention. The Oxon Hill, MD-based School Nutrition Association last week announced Domokos-Bays as the winner of its National Director of the Year award. Domokos-Bays has helped shape the school system into one where students can “try new foods in a safe environment” and take food nutrition concepts home to help educate parents about the benefits of a healthy diet.
Domokos-Bays has helped expand nutrition programs for her districts over the course of her 25-year career, the past five in Loudoun. She has been a major proponent of providing more fresh fruit and vegetable options to students. She also created alternative breakfast options such as Breakfast in the Classroom and Breakfast After the Bell, as well as programs like Taste It Thursdays and Fear Factor Fridays, which give students a chance to try new cuisine that may have previously been a bit scary to them. A 2018 summer meal program served more than 49,000 students alone.
Working with the Loudoun County School Board, Domokos-Bays eliminated the reduced-price fee for meals in her first year, providing free meals to students who were previously part of the reduced-price category. That resulted in increased participation from 65 percent to 85 percent of the students, which allowed Domokos-Bays to negotiate lower overall costs because of a larger pool of children.
“We were only feeding 65 percent of reduced-fee children. They now get the meals at no cost,” she said. Under her leadership, school meal participation has steadily increased each year and the program has maintained a healthy fund balance without a meal price increase in the past four years, according to School Nutrition Association.
Domokos-Bays served as School Nutrition Association president during the 2016-2017 school year, one of only four presidents from Virginia since the organization’s founding in 1946. She has been active in the organization for more than a decade. The association will present the award to her during a July 14 ceremony at its annual conference in St. Louis, MO. She said her staff and school leadership share in the award. “Nutrition is an education intervention. They carry out the mission every day.”
Retiring from Loudoun schools at the end of June, Domokos-Bays is happy with “what our division has accomplished.” There’s always room to grow, she said, “but I feel very good about leaving the district in good hands, because they really buy into what we do.”
Grigsby described how the Virginia Farm to School Network plans to increase communications following the regional meetings. It starts with signing up, at which point new members become a part of the larger network, including quarterly updates and contact information for others in their regions. “This line of communication creates opportunities to collaborate on regional and statewide goals,” she explained. The Virginia Department of Education, Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services offers resources, training programs and farm tours for school nutrition directors.
Regional network leads will check in with network members over the summer about regional and state goals. ‘It’s a grassroots approach to meeting the First Lady’s challenge that integrates stakeholders’ priorities and voices into the movement,” said Grigsby.
Find out more about the Virginia Farm to School program at vdacs.virginia.gov.