Nicole Fournier is the director of account development for the Abbey Group, a foodservice management company based in Enosburg Falls, Vt. Fournier talked with FSD about the company’s focus on local foods and the progress made in furthering its initiatives.
How do you promote local foods in your accounts?
When we develop a relationship with a school we really get out in that community and make local connections and use farms that are in that community to keep the food as local as possible. We work within the state first to get produce and then take it a step further and really work within the community to help support those farmers. Then the kids can take field trips to the farms and really put a name with a face and learn that when they are eating a carrot they are envisioning a field of carrots and not Price Chopper. They are really making that connection and learning about sustainability. I think we’re the largest foodservice company in Vermont, but in New Hampshire there are larger companies but that doesn’t stop us from making connections with those local farmers in that state to try to bring the kids the food that is local to them.
How do you develop these relationships with the farms?
There are district managers for each area. The first thing that we do when we get the schools up and running is we research what’s around us and we go to the farms and visit with the farmers. We do an inspection of good agriculture practices. We try to build relationships that will work for both of us. The first year we can only buy certain things because they are not prepared for the quantities that we need. Lots of times we are planning in January for what we are going to use the following year.
We’ve gotten quite good at building these relationships and we are processing this year. Our company has easily processed more than 5,000 pounds of local vegetables just in Vermont. That’s a really safe number. That’s probably more than just what my accounts have done.
What are you processing and where are you doing this?
We are processing zucchini; we are shredding it to go into spaghetti sauces and to make zucchini breads and muffins. We’ve processed basil. Almost all of our schools have pizza stations and there is fresh basil put into all our pizza and spaghetti sauces. We’re also roasting butternut, delicate and acorn squash. We scoop it out and put four cups per baggie and that way we can make bars and muffins. We incorporate it into a really popular butternut squash soup. We process carrots as well. We sneak those carrots into soups and we incorporate them under the cheese on the pizza and the kids don’t even pick up that there is an extra vegetable in there.
We are doing the processing at each school. We have a baker who makes all of our housemade goods on site. We’ve cut back on our baked goods the first couple of months of school when the bakers are also our processors because that’s when the vegetables are at their height.
What are the localvore lunches?
We do the localvore lunches monthly. It’s to really emphasize what we’re doing. It highlights farmers and brings light to the meals to encourage the kids to know that this is stuff that is local and grown close. We like to keep it at least 50% local on that day.
We do all local yogurt. We kicked off at every account this year a local yogurt parfait. We rotate meats. This month we’re doing venison stew at our high school because it’s hunting season and then we have rolled in some local ground beef. We are working with the local Department of Agriculture to get local patties in. We’ve been testing some products that they have been working with producers on. Local meats aren’t as heavy but on average they are done at some accounts a couple of times a year and others do it once a month. There are a couple of schools that have a farm nearby, like Cambridge, Vt., has Boyden Farms really close. They are known for their beef so we do local beef monthly in that school.
What has been the most challenging thing when setting up this farm-to-school network?
The most challenging thing has been teaching our folks how to do the processing. It’s a different way of thinking. Not everybody feels passionate about it, so it’s about getting folks buzzed about it.
I feel like I peddle a lot of vegetables out of my car so I would love more delivery from farms. We find a way to get things around. We hope that as we develop these relationships we will work things out.
Every farmer has a different style, but they have all been very receptive to working with us. It’s come a long way in the last couple of years. It seems more cohesive and they want to be integrated into the school system. We’re finding people now who will actually deliver. I’m trying to develop a CSA where we can get enough teachers to sign on so that the farm will drop off our vegetables for the CSA and make it worth the delivery trip.