Farm to Schools coordinator for Greeley-Evans School District 6 constantly seeking participation from local farmers, ranchers | TheFencePost.com
Katarina Velazquez
For The Greeley Tribune

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Farm to Schools coordinator for Greeley-Evans School District 6 constantly seeking participation from local farmers, ranchers

Last year, Derrick and Hanmei Hoffman sold their freshly grown melons at farmer's markets in the area, but found themselves with plenty of leftovers.

After Natalie Leffler, who heads Greeley-Evans School District 6's Farm to Schools program, reached out to the Hoffman Farms owners, they decided to sell the melons to her. Leffler was introduced to Derrick through a professor in the University of Northern Colorado's environmental and sustainability studies program, and they kept in touch.

Leffler is always looking for ways to get local farmers involved with the Farm to Schools program. It's her job, but more so, her passion. Especially since more than 80 percent of meals in District 6's kitchen are now made from scratch, thanks to Farm to Schools.

When she caught up with Hoffman and found out he had some extra melons, she informed him about the program. He saw it as a chance to get some watermelons off his hands. She saw it as an opportunity to expand Farm to Schools.

So Leffler loaded a pickup truck full of the Hoffman's melons and drove them about 10 miles down the road to the Greeley-Evans School District 6 Central Production Kitchen. There, they were sliced, diced and stored for the students in the school district to munch on when lunchtime rolled around. They taste a lot different — better — when they're freshly picked and transported from just a few miles away, Leffler said.

Hoffman Farms, 33177 Pikes Peak Drive, is one of eight in-state agricultural producers signed to District 6's top-notch Farm to Schools program, which is a movement to connect schools with local producers. It's meant to serve healthy and nutritious meals to kids while informing them exactly where their food comes from.

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Five out of those eight producers for District 6 are from Weld County and include Meadow Gold Dairy, Legacy Meats, Leffler Family Farms and Tigges Farm.

CREATING RELATIONSHIPS

Leffler, the school district's food hub manager, heads the Farm to Schools program and is in charge of creating relationships with local agriculture producers in Weld County. She negotiates the contracts made between the school district — a federal government entity — and the producers. Farm to Schools gives her leverage to use local producers instead of purchasing from non-local but admittedly cheaper options.

Leffler said she is looking to grow and add more local farmers to the Farm to Schools participation list. Supporting local agricultural producers is important to her to teach, given her background in agriculture, even though it might be a pricier option for the school district. It helps out the local economy while providing District 6 kids with nutritious foods, she said. The first purchase for Farm to Schools in District 6 was for a crop of cherry tomatoes for $240 in 2008, Leffler said. Now the school district's annual food budget has grown to $3.9 million, and 25 percent of that was spent locally — that's over $900,000 back into the local economy.

And on top of that, the more local producers get involved, the more District 6 students are guaranteed some pretty tasty meals.

That's why she's constantly talking to local farmers and ranchers in Weld's ag heavy county — she knows there are more people in the area who can get involved.

FRESH PRODUCT

After this year's growing season, District 6 kids will see almost every color of the rainbow in fruits and vegetables on their school lunch tray from the Hoffmans. Derrick said they will plant tomatoes, cantaloupes, honeydew melons, watermelons, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower this season for the school district for their Farm to Schools contract.

It's their first year participating in Farm to Schools, and Hoffman said they're doing it for two major benefits. One, the program feeds real, fresh food to a school district where 66 percent of the kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. And two, it provides a predictable income for he and his wife, who recently had their third daughter.

"For us, it made sense," he said.

Tigges Farm, 12404 Weld County Rd 64 1/2, has also been a supporter to the program for the past three years. Kathy Rickart, co-manager of the farm, said they contribute bell peppers, squash, Halloween pumpkins (not necessarily for eating), and most famously, their green chiles to the school district.

"If you had a choice between canned chiles and the fresh green chiles, obviously you're going to choose the fresh ones," she said. "They have better nutrition, and they're going to be fresher and taste better."

It turns out she's right.

"The kids here just love those chiles," Leffler said with a laugh. "They love spicy food."

Rickart said the program serves as a way to make sure Tigges Farm is getting use out of everything they're growing. She said they don't necessarily do it for the money. The school district has a budget, and no large producer can make money on the district's program alone.

But she still feels the need to give back. That's what Leffler said she admires about the producers who participate in the program, and why she's always reaching out to more.

"Farmers are always good neighbors," Rickart said. ❖

Farm to Schools

Listed below are the eight participating farmers and ranchers in Greeley-Evans School District 6’s Farm to Schools program, and what they are known for growing and selling:

» Rocky Mountain Fresh, Arvada — Year-round greenhouse tomatoes, various summer vegetables, including summer squash and cucumbers

» Organic Wacky Apple, Hotchkiss — Organic apples, applesauce, apple juice, flat fruit

» Hoffman Farms, Greeley — Hops for local craft beer industry; various vegetables, including peppers and melons

» Leffler Family Farms, Eaton — Berkshire pigs; over 100 vegetable varieties, including sweetcorn, rainbow carrots and beets and heirloom tomatoes

» Tigges Farm, Greeley — Over 12 varieties of hot peppers and rainbow bell peppers

» Legacy Meats, Kersey — Beef and pork, both organic and natural

» Boulder Natural Meats, Boulder — Retail chicken and beef, raised locally in an open or pasture-centered environment;free of antibiotics and growth hormones

» Meadow Gold, Greeley — Milk, dairy products

To participate or for more information about Farm to Schools, go to http://www.greeleyschools.org/Page/2726.