Locavore: A Salad Bar Grows in Holyoke

"We've got the proteins here—tuna, cottage cheese—and fruit," said the man with the toque (chef's hat), Ralph Webb. Webb is the head of the culinary department at Dean Technical High School in Holyoke. With a team of lunch ladies and student workers behind him and a collection of city officials in front of him, Webb was explaining the contents of the high school's new salad bar.

Before the bell rang for lunch, a group of officials including an aide from Congressman Olver's office, a security guard, an officer of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, representatives of various nonprofits and several first generation Puerto Rican citizens were milling about. The mayor of Holyoke was due to arrive any minute.

As an employee of the Department of Education, Webb is required to meet federal guidelines in the school lunch menu at Dean. "The federal guidelines require vegetable, protein, bread and milk," he said, gesturing to the bins of chopped ham, tuna, chicken and peppers in the salad bar. Next to it were a decorative basket of apples and a stack of individually wrapped crackers. "There is your fruit and your starch. This is more than what the guidelines require," he said.

The Holyoke Public School system outsourced its food service to Chartwell, an institutional food services provider. Chartwell's parent company is Compass Group NA, an $8.2 billion organization with associates throughout the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Compass' parent company is U.K.-based Compass Group PLC, a $20.2 billion foodservice company.

Because the plan is to provide locally grown produce for the salad bar in conjunction with Nuestras Raices ("Our Roots"), a Cabot Street-based nonprofit, the endeavor is a complicated one. Not since the advent of sneeze guards has so much been made over a salad bar.

After Webb spoke, Dan Ross, the executive director of Nuestras Raices, began to discuss the health risks that obesity causes and the need to eradicate obesity in the U.S. "We are facing a crisis in the country and in the city of Holyoke, and that crisis is obesity," said Ross. "This causes chronic diseases that have children dying at early ages, and as a result there is low self-esteem and students are missing school. Holyoke is on the cutting edge of this public crisis… We want to make sure all have access and can afford healthy food."

Ross has been with Nuestras Raices for almost a decade and was profiled earlier this year in The Atlantic. If his organization's participation in the Kellogg Foundation's Health and Human Fitness Policy Council endeavor is successful, over $4 million will be awarded to a subsidiary of Nuestras Raices. Holyoke is the poorest city in the state and most of the students at Dean get financial assistance for their meals as well as free breakfast. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which in the past has supported other Western Massachusetts food initiatives such as CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) and The Food Bank, has included Holyoke as one of nine communities that will received funding for city-wide health initiatives.

In the last six years, Nuestras Raices has built 10 urban community gardens, with 125 families and 100 children participating. Over $125,000 worth of food has been sold at the Holyoke Farmers' Market and other outlets. Many first-generation Puerto Ricans have plots in the gardens. La Finca at Jones Ferry is the Nuestras Raices Farm incubator site where flowers, herbs, veggies, ethnic specialty crops and livestock are raised. It is also where lettuce, beans and peppers will be grown for the salad bar in the spring of next year, according to Cruz Franco, a 58-year-old farmer who was born in Ciera, Puerto Rico.

Before descending on the lunchroom, students waited patiently to hear a school official introduce the salad bar. They listened, fidgeting and looking at the group of people with cameras where the tables usually are. Many walked right past the new salad bar opting for a piece of pizza and some apple juice. Jasmine Perez, a freshman, said that she was skipping lunch. "I might try salad later, but not today," she said. When asked if she likes what the school usually serves, she shakes her head and says that vegetables are new to the lunch program.

Michael Echevarria, a senior who works in the culinary department, commented on the protein in the salad bar: "I think chicken should be hot and served with maybe a ranch sauce. Nobody wants the cold chicken." He did not partake of the salad either. A pass through the lunchroom revealed a crowd of around 40 who weren't eating any food at all.

On their way out, a group of students wandered over to a display table near the windows. It was festooned with a cornucopia of cranberries, cabbage, apples and root vegetables. "What are those?" asked one of the kids, pointing to the display. "Those are in the onion family," responded Daniel Batchelder, a sales representative who was manning the table. "They are leeks." The students hung around and asked about the other vegetables and took some of the cider that was offered.

The table was sponsored by Fowler and Hunting, a Connecticut-based food vendor that sells fruits and vegetables to institutions. Fowler's parent company is Compass, which has committed to making deals with 2017 family farms by the year 2017. "We're really a facilitator, not a middle man," said Batchelder, who is used to answering a lot of questions about local sourcing of healthy foods for kids. "We are providing regional food. You know, Maine potatoes. It's about sustainability, not the so-called 100-mile footprint."

Author: Mary Nelen

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