The next chapter for farm to school: Milling whole grains in the cafeteria
A new project in California aims to purchase mills for school cafeterias, marking the next step in a years-long effort to bring local, whole grains to schools around the country.
Nan Kohler founded the milling company Grist & Toll in Pasadena, California in 2013 and her freshly milled flours have been a hit with bakers, chefs, and locavores ever since. But her abiding wish is to sell California-grown, freshly milled whole grain flour, which is nutritionally superior to refined flour, to the public schools in the area.
“If I could sell to anybody, I would sell to the school lunch programs,” Kohler says. “Then we start those little healthy bodies young, and we change those palates to look forward to delicious whole-grain foods. And set them up for healthier lifestyle and eating habits going forward.”
The problem is that schools typically can’t afford Kohler’s flour. This fall, however, she is midwifing a project that will get whole grains into two California school districts. Along with the California Wheat Commission, she was recently awarded a $144,000 California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) grant that will enable Shandon Elementary in San Luis Obispo County to be the first public school in the U.S. to make its own flour using a stone mill on site. The grant, which is funded through March 2023, will cover the cost of the mill and two pasta extruders as well as the training for cafeteria staff to use both.
Elementary students processing whole wheat pasta with the wheat they harvested that season from their school’s wheat garden.
Two additional grants for $20,000 — one awarded to Shandon Joint Unified School District and the other to nearby San Miguel Joint Union School District, both along California’s Central Coast — will buy enough whole grains from local farmers to provide both districts with freshly milled flour for nearly two years. Claudia Carter, executive director at the California Wheat Commission, says the Wheat2School project will provide students in these two districts with nutrient-dense, whole grain foods.
Over the past 20 years, the farm-to-school movement has prioritized getting locally grown fruits and vegetables onto cafeteria trays. The “grain-to-school” movement, though, is just starting to gain steam. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), passed in 2010, improved nutrition standards nationally, requiring grain-based foods served in public schools to be made with at least 51% whole grains. It also provided $5 million annually in funding for farm-to-school projects across the country.
“Over the past five to seven years, we’ve seen a real increase in folks doing farm-to-school that haven’t been just fruits and vegetables,” says Anna Mullen, the communications director at the National Farm to School Network. “We’ve seen an expansion of the idea—to wheat, grains, fish, protein, bison.” Mullen credits the HHFKA for codifying support for farm-to-school projects, and spurring innovation — including projects like the one at Shandon.
Ahead-of-the-curve school districts have been sourcing local wheat for years. Two in Oregon — Portland Public Schools and Bend-La Pine Schools — have been baking with flour from Camas Country Mill in the Willamette Valley for instance. In Georgia, Burke County Public Schools has been sourcing whole wheat flour, whole grain grits, and corn meal from Freeman’s Mill in Statesboro for seven years.
And other districts are beginning to embrace the idea as well: Two years ago, the Chicago-based company Gourmet Gorilla began sourcing wheat from Midwestern farmers to make oat bars, muffins, and pizza with 51% whole grain for schools in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Louisiana. And in upstate New York, a dozen public schools began working with pasta manufacturer Sflogini and Birkett Mills to serve students a 51% whole wheat fusilli and macaroni.
However, the Shandon project is one of the first that will exceed the National School Lunch Program’s requirement. For at least the next two years, all the bread, pizza, tortillas, and even pasta will be made with 100% whole wheat.
‘The best tortilla I have ever had’
Claudia Carter, who is working on a Ph.D. in nutrition at North Dakota State University, is passionate about the Wheat2School project for several reasons.
Chuck Buckingham, lead volunteer, using his wheat thresher to harvest at Whitehead Elementary in Woodland.
The majority of the students at Shandon and San Miguel are farmworkers’ kids, and most are Latinx. “My food service manager [at Shandon] told me, ‘For some of these kids, [school breakfast and lunch] are the only two meals they eat throughout the day,’” Carter says. “So I have to feed them the best I can. How can I be serving them a Pop-Tart, canned fruit, and fruit juice? If you add that together it’s 65 grams of sugar — and that’s just their breakfast!”
That list describes the actual menu at the Woodland Unified School District just outside Sacramento, where Carter launched a previous wheat-to-school project. And it’s a far cry from that kids have less than 25 grams (six teaspoons) of sugar a day.
“For some of these kids, [school breakfast and lunch] are the only two meals they eat throughout the day — so I have to feed them the best I can.”
Breakfasts like this, Carter says, can not only lead to childhood diabetes, they also lead to sugar spikes (and crashes) that undermine sustained learning. She points out that whole grains, on the other hand, contain not only more fiber than white flour, they contain vitamin E, an antioxidant that is important for vision and a properly developing nervous system. (The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has called these both “shortfall nutrients” since they are so under-consumed by the U.S. population.) Whole grains also are rich in B vitamins and protein, both of which are important for brain health. And though some whole grain recipes — like whole-wheat muffins — contain added sugar, the levels tend to be lower than the processed food included in most school breakfasts.
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Some nutrition professionals pointed to the high percentage of whole grain foods that went to waste in the first few years after the HHKA, but Carter believes that you can influence kids’ palates by feeding them high-quality whole grains early on.
The 100% whole wheat cinnamon rolls prepared for Shandon and San Miguel schools.
In Ecuador, where she grew up, bread and tortillas made with whole grain are a rarity. It was her husband, who hails from South Dakota, who converted her to eating them. “As a result, our kids have been eating whole wheat stuff since they were little,” Carter says. “I buy all the stuff Nan produces at Grist & Toll, and I make pancakes, bread, and cakes.”
Carter is also on the board of a nonprofit called Yolo Farm-to-Fork, which funds edible school garden programs throughout Yolo County in California. A few years ago, in an effort to introduce other kids to these delicious, nutritious baked goods, she helped launch Yolo’s wheat-to-school project at another elementary school in the county. The students grew wheat — and, in a single day, harvested it and milled it themselves.
“That same day we had stations for pasta-making, tortilla-making, and bread-baking,” Carter says. “Keep in mind that 80% of these kids are Mexican-American. They grew up eating white tortillas, like me. And every single kid had a huge smile on their face when eating their tortilla warm. I heard, unanimously, ‘This is the best tortilla I have ever had.’”
Today’s food system is complex.
This experience was the inspiration for the Wheat2School project at Shandon. Carter will be collecting data for her doctoral research, proving, she hopes, that kids actually do want to eat 100% whole-grain products. She also plans to compare the nutritional content of the fresh bread with what Shandon has served in the past.
Baking demos and milling lessons
This month, Grist & Toll’s Kohler will visit Shandon to train cafeteria staff and the California Wheat Commission’s intern Isaac Lopez on the mill. The staff — including Shandon’s food service manager Gelene Coehlo, a home baker herself—has expressed excitement about the project.
Lopez, a student at Cal Poly, will be on site once a week to help with troubleshooting. Eventually, Carter hopes to train high school students to use the mill as well.
Over the summer, the California Wheat Commission hosted baking demos and tested recipes to find the tastiest and healthiest recipes for kids. Kohler is sharing some new recipes for muffins and no-knead pizza; they’re also making some surprising discoveries, including a way to decrease the sugar content in their roll recipe from 20% to 15%.
“The beauty of working with 100% whole Sonora wheat is that it comes with an internal sweetness,” Carter notes. Though the National School Lunch Program has no limit on sugar, she and Coehlo are glad to reduce it where they can.
As part of the grant, Carter and her intern will also be developing lesson plans on the history of wheat grown in California, agricultural science, and the superior nutrition of whole grains. “Right now, we’re putting together a lesson plan on the Missions in San Miguel that grew Sonora wheat specifically,” she says. Students will also have the opportunity to grow and harvest wheat in a test garden.
Supporting local farmers is key to Carter and Kohler’s vision for the project, and to that end, they’ve arranged for three of the California farmers who supply grains for the pilot project to speak in classrooms this fall.
“We want to show children their faces and say, ‘OK, you are eating their bread,’” says Carter. “A lot of pointing back to how your food is made, why this is so important.”
The cost of local wheat
Since infrastructure is one of the tricky issues with wheat-to-school projects — schools need to find a local miller to work with, or have a mill on site — some people are studying how to make the process smoother and less costly. Last year, researchers at the Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agriculture & Life Sciences and the Artisan Grain Collaborative in Madison received a $516,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Market Promotion Program to expand the value chain for Midwest grain growers in institutions over the next three years.
“I think that creating those local businesses that make products from local grains is probably gonna be the sweet spot,” says Vanessa Herald, a senior farm to institution outreach specialist at UW-Madison.
Umi Organic in Portland is one such company. In 2019, Portland Public Schools began purchasing the company’s 50% whole-grain, organic yakisoba noodles. Umi’s owner Lola Milholland says that providing additional funding for grain-to-school projects like hers is critical to their success.
“Our product does cost more money,” she says. “It’s Oregon-milled grain, Oregon-produced noodles.” (Milholland sources Durum and Edison wheat flour from Camas Country Mill in Eugene.)
Oregon’s legislature has been funding farm-to-school projects since 2007, when it budgeted for a permanent, full-time farm-to-school manager position. In July, the legislature re-upped the Oregon Farm-to-School Grant Program, setting aside $10.2 million in funding for schools to purchase and serve Oregon-grown foods. These funds, in part, will go to buy more Umi Organic noodles; the Portland Public School district just increased its noodle order from 2,000 pounds every six months to 3,600 per month.
In Chicago, Gourmet Gorilla maintains a cost-conscious focus, since their customers are school districts that don’t necessarily have grants. Co-founder and CEO Danielle Hrzic says they lower costs by including some conventional ingredients alongside organic ones.
“There are some concessions you have to make,” says Hrzic. “Breads were really tough. We want clean and whole grain, and it gets expensive in a lot of cases. So that’s where we started making our own grain products that met all the nutritional requirements.”
Their internal brand, Grow Good Foods, includes GROWnola, muffins, pizza, and oat bars — all made from local grains including sorghum. The company works with Janie’s Mill in Illinois and Meadowlark Organics in Wisconsin.
The future of Wheat2School
Back at Shandon Unified, Kohler sees a future for the Wheat2School project even when the CDFA grants expire in 2023. “We need to set it up so it can thrive on its own and be sustainable,” Kohler says. “We’ll be facilitating the connections with the farmers who are committed to a certain price point for the grain.”
Although the California Wheat Commission’s grant covers all the start-up costs — the stone mill and two pasta extruder machines, as well as staff training — the main challenge once the other two grants run out will be getting quantities of wheat at a price that can work for both the district and the farmers. “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble doing that,” Kohler says, optimistically.
“We know all about school budget deficits and challenges — but we also know what’s possible with a lot of creative thinking and community-building.”
Organic whole wheat flour costs three times as much as processed white flour, which can go for as little as 27¢ a pound. Shandon and San Miguel are paying an average of 55¢ a pound to buy unmilled wheat directly from the farmers, according to Carter.
“We know all about school budget deficits and challenges,” Kohler says. “But we also know what’s possible with a lot of creative thinking and community-building.”
When she and Carter first met with the Shandon kitchen staff this summer, they were already brainstorming about how the mill might open up fundraising opportunities like pizza parties and bake sales. Furthermore, Kohler expects more organic growers to join the Wheat2School project — she was inundated with wildly supportive messages from farmers after announcing the project on Instagram this summer. Some of these farmers grow at higher volume and might be able to achieve a lower price — one that schools can afford on their own in the future.
As Kohler said in her Instagram post, “You think it can’t be done? Too complicated? No one is interested? Kids won’t eat whole grains? Watch us, we’re about to blow the lid off all that.”