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Tom Lewis, FaHN VISTA, recently visited the Broome-Tioga BOCES Food Service office in Endicott, NY to speak with Ray Denniston, Special Projects Coordinator, and Julie Raway, MPH, RDN, CDN, SNS, and the Rock on Café Registered Dietitian, to learn more about their organization and the many exciting projects they are currently working on.

Broome-Tioga BOCES Food Service’s mission is “to enrich the educational process by providing a quality child nutrition program” and their vision is “to be nationally recognized as a premier child nutrition program.” Their role as the food service provider for Broome and Tioga County began when the public schools were all individually managed by their own separate directors. BOCES’ role expanded when instead of hiring a new director after another one left, they instead merged with BOCES so they could have shared services. Currently all 15 school districts in Broome and Tioga County are part of the BT-BOCES management program. According to their website their services to districts include: menu planning, purchasing, staff supervision, budgeting, and much more. A unique feature of their setup is that they manage the school district’s programs as far as procurement and training, but the programs themselves are still individually owned by each school district.

What is each of your positions in BT-BOCES and what are some of the programs you both work on?

Julie: I’m a registered dietitian and work with the school nutrition programs in all the districts. I lead the menu development team,  which is comprised of food service directors and managers. I also lead a recipe development team that works on recipes for new menu items. In addition to the menu, there are many other aspects of my job. Some include presentations and workshops with students, media organization including  having our menus read on the TV and the radio, community events and health promotions, and working with our many partners. Essentially, half of my job is food service and the other half is community. The food service piece is working on menus, recipes, and nutrient analysis. The other part is working with community partners to bring the wellness component into our programs and connecting food service, health, community, and hunger. Basically, bringing them all together.

Ray: I do a lot with the purchasing, bidding, specifications, and working directly with Julie. I look at price and Julie looks at nutrition and then if it’s a go, Julie takes it for taste testing, to look at acceptability. On the other side of that, I also work with the community as well. I work with the Broome County Child Hunger Coalition, the Broome County Health Department, Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS), Albany Farm to School, staff training, and anything we can do to emphasize and promote the program and its importance. Mark Bordeau who is the Senior Food Service Director (Mark was recently named Food Service Director of the year by the School Nutrition Association. You can read more about him here.), really oversees the whole program and brings in a lot of our philosophies. The staff created the mission statement. We worked with them in groups until they came up with their scope of where they wanted to take the program.

Why is it important for children in schools to have access to healthy meal options?

Julie: We are really trying to be a program of prevention by starting healthy eating habits at a young age. At age five when students typically start school, their taste buds have already been developed. But, it’s still a good age to be introducing healthy foods and encouraging them to eat better, because they are further developing their taste preferences.

Ray: We also feel very strongly about providing nutritious meals to kids as these may be the only nutrients they get on a daily basis, and this not only affects their health and their ability to learn, but also their ability to grow and compete. Looking at the food insecurity situation in our county, we find it important to deal with that as well as provide overall wellness for the child.

Can you explain the BT BOCES Rock on Café program?

rock on cafeJulie: The Rock on Café is a trademarked school nutrition program with a partnership between school food service and the community.  We provide students with healthier versions of foods they like, while also being affordable and convenient.  The main focus is to try to bring the fun of healthy eating into the cafeteria, and to work towards alleviating hunger.  In partnership with United Health Services, we use two cartoon characters named Rex and Roxy to get the kids involved.  They visit students at schools during activities such as taste tests or other nutrition promotions.  Overall, it’s a program of prevention that works to ensure all students get the food and nutrition they need throughout the school day so they can perform to the best of their abilities.

Why do you think farm to school is important for the area?

Ray: Farm to school is very important for many reasons. One is the economics of the area, and knowing that we have the potential to raise and process fresh products. The second is for the longevity of the food system in our area. Knowing the average age of a farmer in New York State, versus how many farms close on a daily basis is kind of frightening.

Third is the quality of the foods that we can provide to the kids that we serve. When we are able to see an example of strawberries picked today and served tomorrow, it is much better than a product that has traveled 3000 miles that we have no control over. We have a lot more input locally to really design the foods that we are looking for, so we can be involved not only in the food safety aspects of it; but also, the growth of the product and actually knowing the farmers. We would love to see most of our foods coming locally, and that it will be a long-term commitment, but we do believe it can be done and we believe that it is important.

What do you think could improve the local food system?

Ray: The local food system is missing infrastructure. We do not have available markets, or the interest of the farm community in seeing us as a viable partner and customer. We are missing a delivery system that gets the products from A to B. We are getting there but we don’t have the processing needed for value added products. If all of those things were taken care of, we would be flourishing in farm to school. But at this time the infrastructure still needs to be built, and it’s not something that we can just throw money at and say, “Here, go buy food.” That isn’t the answer. The answer is to have the food available so we can work within our pricing structure, which is rather restricted on what we have to spend on a meal.

Why did BOCES decide to become a member with the Food & Health Network?

Ray: When we started looking at the schools, the Rural Health Network was extremely supportive of farm to school efforts. Out of that grew the need for a person to start working directly on farm to school. We started with an AmeriCorps member for the Food & Health Network and it grew from there. We are really thankful for the Food & Health Network. We need to have that kind of resource available to us. The Food & Health Network is out there doing work that we can’t always get to, and building relationships with farmers. It is appreciated by BOCES.