Operations

How Chartwells K12 uses a dedicated crop program to grow its farm-to-school efforts

The foodservice provider works with over 10 local farms who dedicate a portion of their land to grow crops just for Chartwells K12 schools in New England.
Local carrots
Chartwells K12 is able to serve local carrots and more to students as part of its New England dedicated crop program. | Photos courtesy of Chartwells K12

Chartwells K-12 is using a dedicated crop program to expand the amount fresh produce it serves to students in New England. 

The idea for the program was driven by Chartwells K12 foodservice teams in the area, who wanted to expand their farm-to-school programs. 

“They wanted to bring in more local produce,” says Chartwells K12 New England Regional Executive Chef Chase Sobelman. “So we were looking for a centralized, safe, efficient and sustainable process to get more local produce into the schools and also to communicate with the farmers and meet them where they're at.”

The program originally launched in 2017 but was put on hiatus since the start of the pandemic.

This school year, the foodservice provider has revitalized the program and is using it to bring fresh produce to over 60 schools in New England. 

Choosing the produce

Chartwells K12 works with around 12 to 15 different farms located across New England as part of the program. 

The foodservice provider speaks with the farmers in the spring to discuss what specific crops they could grow for the program and what their expected yield would be. From there, the produce is then grown, harvested and delivered to schools the following September, October and November.

Chartwells K12 tries to select what produce to grow based on its needs.  

“We're working with products that will sell in the schools but then also [ones] that are a little easier to prep, because we don't have a lot of time,” says Sobelman. 

Some of the produce sourced through the program include carrots, kale, corn on the cob, potatoes, cucumbers, green squash, yellow squash, eggplant, green peppers, butternut squash and tomatoes.

The ingredients are utilized throughout the menu. Some are offered as part of the salad bar, while others are used a topping for sandwiches or as a side to entrees. The foodservice provider is also incorporating the local produce into the menu at some of its concepts, including its Global Eats program

“[For Global Eats] we could prepare a spicy Caribbean island curry that has eggplant, peppers and carrots or a Korean Bibimbap bowl which has cucumbers, zucchini, carrots and squash,” says Sobelman.  

Kale Chips

Kale is one of the many local produce options available to Chartwells K12 New England students. 

Looking toward the future 

While the program involves a lot of planning and preparation to try and make sure the correct amount of produce gets delivered to schools, things still don’t always go according to plan. 

“No matter how much you plan for something like this mother nature is still in control,” says Sobelman. 

This year, for example, some of the foodservice provider’s pre-orders had to be replaced with produce not local to the area due to some of the farmers losing much of their crop. 

“Our operators were still able to serve what was on the menu, but in some cases, those items might have come from another region,” says Sobelman. “We’re always looking to serve local and fresh but in this case, we [had] to settle for fresh.”

Looking toward the future, the foodservice provider is planning to continue growing the dedicated crop program. 

In the past, it has only been available for the fall season, however, Chartwells K12 will be expanding it to include the spring season as well. Students will now get to enjoy fresh asparagus, radishes, mushrooms, chard and more during the second half of the school year. 

The team is also looking at working with additional farmers to provide a greater variety of local items to students. 

“We certainly want to grow the program and work with more local farms to expand not only in volume, but also crop varieties, and layer more local produce into our engagement programs,” says Sobelman.