Operations

Local tomato sauce punches up pasta dishes at New York schools

The sauce, which was funded through a state farm-to-school grant, allowed schools to increase the amount of local ingredients in its dishes.
SUNY Delhi students with tomatoes
SUNY Delhi students oversaw much of the project and helped create the sauce. | Photo courtesy of The State University of New York at Delhi (SUNY Delhi)

Last spring, a handful of students from Sidney Central School District in Sidney, New York, and nearby Walton Central School District in Walton, New York, sat down to sample and share their thoughts on two different types of tomato sauce.

While the two sauces had different levels of spice, garlic and other ingredients, they shared one thing in common: both were made with tomatoes grown and harvested from nearby farms.  

The sauces were the product of a farm-to-school grant project put on by the Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego Board of Cooperative Educational Services (DCMO Boces) and other partners.  

After students selected their favorite of the two sauces, the winner was used on menus starting in the fall where it quickly proved popular with the rest of the student body.

“We actually did not make it the whole year with the sauce,” says Connie Babino Food Service Director for DCMO Boces. “All of our schools used all of the sauce well before the end of the year.”

The project served as a way for DCMO Boces to try its hand at creating a local product that would enable its districts to increase the amount of local ingredients in its menus.

Finding the funding

The idea for creating the sauce began during the fall of 2021, when DCMO Boces was looking for ways to boost the amount of local ingredients in its New York Thursday meals, a state-wide initiative where participating public schools serve lunches using ingredients grown and raised in the state on Thursdays.

Tomato sauce was chosen since it was an ingredient that was commonly used throughout each of the districts’ menus. DCMO Boces decided to apply for a state farm-to-school grant during the summer of 2022 to fund the project.

They were awarded the grant, and quickly started working with other organizations to bring their idea into reality, including The Rural Health Network of South Central New York (Rural Health Network of SCNY), State University of New York at Delhi (SUNY Delhi) and the Catskills Agrarian Alliance (CAA), a local non-profit who helped with finding the farmers to grow the tomatoes.

“[The CAA] works as the producer and aggregator and distributor of our program, and they're also a nonprofit,” says Rural Health Network of SCNY farm to school coordinator Hanna Rion.  “They kind of are like a food hub and have relationships with a lot of the farmers in that area.”

As part of their contribution to the project, a teacher from SUNY Delhi and her students oversaw the project’s initial stages all the way to its completion.  

“She had a group of [four] students that were willing to take this on,” says Babino.

Each student oversaw a specific part of the project, including marketing the sauce, tracking inventory and ensuring the sauce adhered to School Nutrition Standards.

One of the first tasks for the Delhi students was to calculate how many tomatoes would be needed to supply enough sauce for each of the participating districts.

“They figured it out to be 11,000 pounds of tomatoes,” says Babino. “And then, from there, once the tomatoes were ready, they would coordinate it with CAA, and the tomatoes would be shipped as they ripen, to Delhi.”

Once ripened they were steamed, skinned, cooled and frozen to then be turned into sauce by the Delhi students.

Menuing the sauce

Most of the sauce made its way onto menus in the form of pasta menu items.

“[Schools] would thaw [the sauce], and then they would make the pasta, and then put that sauce over the pasta with some ground beef in it, and serve it how they saw fit,” says farm-to-school coordinator for Sidney Central School District Maryssa Wilson.

At some schools, it was also used for Italian meatball subs as well as a dip for pizza rolls.

In addition to enjoying the local sauce, students were able to learn more about where the tomatoes used in the sauce were through a map Wilson created for each school which showed students how far the tomatoes traveled to get to their cafeteria.

“The students were able to just get this instant visual of, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this marinara sauce only traveled across two, maybe three counties,’ depending on where the school was,” she says.

Sidney Tomato Poster

Farm-to-school coordinator for Sidney Central School District Maryssa Wilson created a poster so students could see where the sauce came from. Image courtesy of Maryssa Wilson

Learning best practices

The entire project served as a great learning experience, Rion says. 

“We really looked at this current project as a pilot,” she says. “We've learned that 11,000 tomatoes is a lot of tomatoes, and it didn't make it through the entire school year.”

In addition, the team learned that they could better manage costs next time by picking different types of tomatoes.

“We were using greenhouse grown, I think gourmet tomatoes,” says Rion. “That was something of a learning curve. Maybe we don't need the best of the best tomatoes in terms of greenhouse grown.”

Already, steps have begun to bring back the sauce. The team is looking to apply for another farm-to-school grant and has reached out to other universities in the area to see if they would be interested in working on this next iteration of the project since it was a lot for just SUNY Delhi to manage.

“Those conversations have just started, and we're looking forward to see where they go,” says Rion.

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