Meet the Local Food Dude. He’s Chef Tim Cipriano, executive director of Food Services for New Haven, CT public schools. When he walks into one of the district’s schools wearing his white chef’s coat emblazoned with a colorful “Healthy Kids First” logo with images of fruits and vegetables, the students crowd around him.
“It’s like I’m a rock star,” he said, chuckling. “The students want to talk about good food. It’s amazing how much excitement there is about it.”
Named Food Service Director of the Month by FoodService Director magazine and Advocate for the Year by Share Our Strength: No Kid Hungry, Cipriano has made a name for himself by reaching out to local farmers and serving more fresh, local produce in the school-lunch program.
And when President Obama signed the Child Nutrition Act this month, Cipriano was there, ready to celebrate the occasion and share some thoughts about it with the media.
“This legislation is historic and will allow me to continue to offer more real foods to the kids in our schools,” he told the reporters.
He’s a big fan of local produce because it’s fresher and therefore tastes better than produce shipped from distant points. And because it tastes better, the kids eat more of it.
Earlier this year, this self-proclaimed “rock-star chef” was invited to attend Produce Safety University, a USDA food-safety initiative that focuses on the safe handling of fresh produce by school food-service operators.
The workshop was one of three workshops designed and put on by USDA agencies, Food and Nutrition Service and Agricultural Marketing Service. A pilot program, it will continue with other workshops and training opportunities, a USDA official said.
The workshops provide participants with information about Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices — practices designed to prevent pathogens that can sicken or kill people from contaminating produce. It’s a farm-to-plate approach to food safety.
Based on the principle of “train the trainer,” the workshops give food-service handlers and agency officials involved in school-feeding programs the information and tools that will help schools offer safe, nutritious and fresh produce to children.
When participants complete the workshop, they receive a certificate and training packet that can be used for regional, state and local training sessions on fresh produce handling and food safety.
The USDA is encouraging schools to increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables served to students who participate in federally funded feeding programs such as the National School Lunch Program. And the recently signed Child Nutrition Act provides more money for schools to do that.
While this is good news, USDA officials are quick to remind people that even though research has proven that fresh produce provides many nutritional benefits, it must be handled safely to reduce the risks of foodborne illnesses.
Based on recently released stats, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne diseases cause approximately 48 million illnesses, 127,839 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths in the United States each year. Many of those are caused by pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, which can contaminate fruits and vegetables if proper food-safety practices are not followed.
Cipriano told Food Safety News that he was probably invited to attend one of the Produce Safety University workshops because he has so much experience in buying local fresh produce and in training food-service workers how to prepare and serve it safely. He was one of three chefs who attended that particular session.
“I knew I could share a lot,” he said. “I’m pretty passionate about it. I’m not shy.”
He gives high marks to the USDA workshop, which included a series of lecture, lab, and field-trip instruction that covered all aspects of the fresh-produce supply chain, from growing and harvesting produce, to storing and ultimately preparing it.
“We talked a lot about food safety,” he said. “We shared information we could bring back to the farmers and food-service workers. I think it definitely increased awareness about produce. It opens up doors to a world one may never had any experience with unless you’ve worked in a produce house or in restaurants.”
In buying produce from local farms, Cipriano goes through FreshPoint Connecticut, a branch of Texas-based FreshPoint, the largest foodservice distributor of fresh produce in the nation. FreshPoint Connecticut buys produce from about 150 small and large farms in Connecticut and surrounding areas.
FreshPoint has what is known as a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP plan (pronounced “hassip”) in place — a systematic, science-based plan that identifies specific hazards and ways to control them to ensure the safety of food. In the case of FreshPoint, that food-safety chain begins on the farm and goes all the way to the final destination, whether it be a school, hospital nursing home, or restaurant.
FreshPoint also educates the farmers about food safety and requires the farmers it buys from to follow food-safety practices all the way from planting to harvesting and storing the produce until FreshPoint picks it up.
Another plus is that FreshPoint delivers the local produce in refrigerated trucks — a key to ensuring the quality and the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Todd Gianetti, safety manager for FreshPoint Connecticut, said that some farmers will say that their family has been farming for 200 years and never had a food-safety problem.
“We have to explain that microorganisms have changed and become more powerful,” Gianetti said.
By taking the measures it does, FreshPoint provides customers “double insurance” that the produce they’re buying is safe, according to Gianetti.
“I think it’s important for people to know where their food is coming from and that it’s safe,” he said. “School districts have that responsibility.”
As far as Gianetti is concerned, food safety should be “the norm.”
“It’s what we need to practice on a daily basis,” he said.
Stewart Eidel, who oversees all the school-food programs and coordinates food-service training for Maryland’s Department of Education, also attended one of the Produce Safety University workshops. Soon after returning to Maryland, he conducted a training session on good agricultural practices and good handling practices.
“We want them (food-service managers and workers) to think about how to start using good-agricultural-practices criteria to evaluate and support local farmers,” he said.
Taking food-safety precautions through the entire food distribution chain is especially critical for fresh produce, Eidel said.
“When it’s served raw, there’s no ‘kill process,’ ” that cooking provides, he said. “It means you have to pay more attention and make sure you have safe sources.”
Eidel said the information the participants of the produce-safety USDA workshops learned will be useful when it comes to educating farmers and school district employees about good agricultural practices and good handling practices.
“So we can help them select safe food,” he said.
He said that the challenge in buying from small-scale local farmers is that some of them don’t have the food-safety systems in place that agribusiness does.
“That’s why we need to go the extra step and ask them questions about their source of water and how their food is handled, packed, and shipped so we have an idea of what food-safety practices they have in place and how we can implement good-agricultural-practices-type programs that are feasible for them.”
At USDA, Janey Thornton, Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told Food Safety News that she is pleased with the feedback she’s received about Produce Safety University.
“A lot of what we found was that this is an area that people are hungry for more knowledge,” she said.
With more than 25 years as school nutrition director for Hardin County Schools in rural Kentucky, Thornton has plenty of on-the-ground experience in school-feeding programs.
Pointing out that the USDA is interested in having schools buy more fresh local produce, Thornton said there’s also a recognition of the challenges involved in actually doing that.
She said one of the challenges that surfaced when talking with many food-service directors is the concern that their people have never handled fresh produce before.
“They’re not sure if they know how to handle it properly,” she said.
Thornton doesn’t find that surprising because so much of the produce we buy in the stores is already cleaned and packaged.
And while the USDA wants to get more fresh produce into the schools, Thornton emphasized that the top priority is the safety of the children.
According to public-health officials, children, older people, and those with immune systems that are compromised are more vulnerable to foodborne illnesses.
For food-service workers, one of the challenges is what to look for when buying fresh produce and how to write specifications for it — information provided during Produce Safety University workshops.
Thornton said this can be challenging because food-service staff need to know how to write specifications about things like size and grade for a wide range of produce such as beans, apples, tomatoes and lettuce.
She also pointed out that more and more schools are procuring fresh produce locally and in some cases having the produce processed in the community for later use simply because a lot of produce is harvested when school is not in session.
As she looks to the future, she sees a scenario in which a school district will say what produce it wants, and farmers will submit bids. Farmers who win the bids will plant for the school district based on the district’s specifications — or maybe even for further processing in the community.
She describes this sort of process as a win-win for the farmers, school districts, students, and local communities.
Then there are the kids. Will they eat fresh fruits and vegetables?
Thornton said that food-service employees are finding that some kids have never been exposed to fresh produce. But when a teacher holds up some broccoli, for example, and talks about it, and when the kids see their fellow students sampling it, they’re more willing to try it.
“It’s absolutely amazing to see the difference,” Thornton said.
Back in the New Haven school district, Chef Tim Cipriano enthusiastically describes some of the ways the district is making sure the kids get healthy food. They serve mashed unpeeled red potatoes (the kids love them), brown rice, winter squashes, roasted fresh sweet potato chips, vegetable lasagne, cucumbers, tomatoes, kale and cabbage, and plenty of fruit. No flavored milk. No chicken nuggets.
“You have to start with baby steps so the kids will accept it,” he said. “You can’t start off with tofu and beets.”
Then there’s a favorite meal: roast chicken and corn on the cob.
“The kids tell us that our meals taste like Sunday dinner,” he said. “They say it’s ‘real food.’ ”
With more than 80 percent of the school district’s students qualifying for free or reduced lunches, Cipriano said the food they’re served at lunch could be the only good food they get all day.
That’s especially relevant, say nutrition experts, because schoolchildren get from one-third to half of the calories they eat each day at school.
Interestingly enough, the free school-lunch program had its roots in national defense. With so many World War II recruits coming into the service malnourished, the school-lunch program was seen as one way to remedy that.
The size of the recruits has changed since then — from skinny to fat. And not surprisingly, the military supported the recently passed Child Nutrition Act, which among other things provides more money for healthy school lunches.
“They told Congress that too many of the young soldiers are fat and out of shape — and that the best way to solve that problem is through school lunches,” Cipriano said.
For Cipriano, staying ahead of the curve and serving healthy food to students is an exciting challenge.
“We’re always trying different things,” he said. “We think outside of the school-lunch box.”
More than 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and more than 11 million children participate in the National School Breakfast Program.
Photo credits: Photo of Chef Timothy Cipriano courtesy Tim; Photo of USDA Under Secretary Janey Thornton, during one of her visits to schools around the country to encourage healthy food choices, including more fresh fruits and vegetables, courtesy USDA Food and Nutrition Service