ChicopeeFRESH cooks up something special in Chicopee schools

2/10/2017 | Chris Maza

Category: February

FoodCorps service members Greta Shwachman and Jordyn Kessler prepare a taste test of an apple dip made with sunbutter, yogurt, cinnamon and honey at Stefanik Elementary School.
Reminder Publications photo by Chris Maza

Something special is being cooked up in the Chicopee Public Schools.

With a goal of supporting healthy lifestyles for students, the ChicopeeFRESH program has embarked on a two-part mission to provide healthier local food options while also teaching children to develop better eating habits. The “farm to school” program is a districtwide initiative, incorporating all 15 schools and serving approximately 8,000 students.

“A portion of it is we design the menus to include local seasonal produce and ingredients so local food goes into the meals every week, if not every day,” explained Sustainable Food Systems Coordinator Rachel Harb. “A portion of that, too, is education about nutrition, healthy eating and farming and gardening.”

While Food Service Director Joanne Lennon has been a longtime supporter of and advocate for the use of locally sourced food and healthy eating initiatives in the district, it was in 2014 that ChicopeeFRESH was born, thanks to a grant by the Henry P. Kendall Foundation.

“Joanne’s been doing this work for a long time. She’s been focusing on farm to school, but never to this scale. She was approached by Andy Kendall, the director of the Henry P. Kendall foundation, about the grant and then she hired a sustainable food systems coordinator and they got a group together and that’s when they kind of had a visioning and came up with ChicopeeFRESH,” explained Greta Shwachman, a FoodCorps service member working in the district through the grant.

After that two-year grant helped lay the foundation for the program, the district is now operating under a second grant that is building the program to its “maturation phase,” according to Harb, who joined the district from the University of Massachusetts Dining Services, where she was the substantiality director.

ChicopeeFRESH’s primary mission begins outside of the schools’ kitchens. It starts with identifying responsibly raised healthy ingredients that can be found locally and regionally and purchased at reasonable prices. That’s where Harb comes in.

“My primary role here is to connect the Chicopee schools’ food programs with local farmers,” she explained.

In a short time, ChicopeeFRESH has developed an extensive portfolio of local and regional partners.

Czajkowski Farm in Hadley remains one of the major contributors to the district’s healthy eating initiatives. Owner Joe Czajkowski has been working with Lennon and the Chicopee Public Schools for more than a decade.

“Joe Czajkowski does the majority of our produce and that is all kinds of food – fruits, vegetables, berries,” Harb said. “And it’s not just his farm. He has a network of a couple of dozen small farms. They’ll drop their apples or berries or whatever with him and he’ll take them in his trucks and bring it around.”

Queen’s Greens in Amherst is a major source of lettuce for the district through its program during regular growing months and now a new hydroponic farm is making fresh lettuce available to the district year-round.

FB Foods has also joined the fold as one of the newer local food providers with tomatoes and applesauce.

“It’s an applesauce made with local apples that is reasonably priced and tastes like your mom made it and it has no added sugar; it’s just straight up apples,” Harb said.

Arnold’s Meats is the program’s major supplier of meat, offering its own products and aggregating local products it delivers once a week. One of the most popular Arnold’s products is its blend of ground beef and mushrooms used by the kitchens to make hamburger patties and taco meat.

“It is an amazing product because it tastes the same, but has half the fat, half the sodium and all that. It’s a 60/40 beef to mushroom ratio,” according to Harb.

In addition that product, through Arnolds ChicopeeFRESH receives some eggs from Maine, pork sausage links for grinders, humane whole chicken for soups, and they order pre-packed apple slices from New York.

Diemand Farms in Millers Falls provides free range turkeys twice a year.

“It’s my favorite meal and a favorite of a lot of the kids,” Harb said “They really look forward to it.”

North Coast Seafood provides a locally caught red fish that is used to make a potato chip breaded fish filet for baked fish meals or fish tacos.

Hillside Pizza, a local, family-owned chain that makes thoughtfully sourced pizzas with organic products and local cheese, provides the program with cheese pizzas that offer an economic benefit.

“They just started branching out into retail and we’ve been experimenting with a pizza product that they give us with five ounces of cheese instead of the usual eight and we add the additional three and that makes it more affordable for us because we can add our own cheese at a cheaper rate,” Harb explained.

While the majority of the school’s dairy products come through Hood, the district also receives some of its yogurt from Upstate Farms in New York. The quality, Harb said, is on par with what the district would get from Yoplait or Dannon and it is comparably priced. Some milk is also acquired from McCray’s Farm in South Hadley. Most recently it was used for a locally-sourced chocolate pudding.

In addition to procuring ingredients, Harb also works with food services to develop menus with recipes that incorporate the local ingredients she is able to obtain.

“We have a little bit of flexibility because we write different menus for the different age groups so if we’re trying out a new recipe out, we might just try it with the older kids and if it works, it can be carried out to all of the schools,” she said.

Approximately 15 percent of the district’s ingredients will be locally sourced by the end of the school year. If Hood products are included, that number jumps to close to 30 percent.

The challenge, Harb explained, is to develop menus that incorporate these ingredients in such a way that it is not only tasty, but responsible.

“When Joanne and I are looking at it, we’re often trying to figure out how we can combine this with the products we buy through the government to make sure we’re providing balanced meals with local products with the affordable products mixed in,” she said. “It’s going pretty well. I’m currently calculating the per-meal price and I think it’ll show that this isn’t going to break the bank.”

The program recently tapped two new consultants to help with lunch menu development and the baking program.

“We’re working on some exciting new recipes. We recently tried a Pho Vietnamese soup with local bean sprouts and other vegetables,” Harb said. “The other consultant, who is the executive chef for UMass dining, is helping with the baking program. He went into Lambert-Lavoie Elementary School and showed them how they make muffins from scratch in an industrial kitchen and he helped reformat the recipe so it would be to scale for what they have. Now they’re baking muffins and they’re teaching the other schools how to bake. We could be buying packaged muffins, but compare that to a fresh-baked muffin. You can’t compare them and we’ve put local ingredients into those muffins.”

The program also actually encourages teamwork between school districts.

“Part of our grant allows us to work with neighboring districts to help them get their farm to school program, at least for procurement, started up,” she said. “We work with Greenfield and Ludlow. I go into the other districts and work with their food service directors on a one-on-one basis and figure out what makes sense for them.”

ChicopeeFRESH’s impact is even more far-reaching. In April, Harb and Lennon will make a presentation on the program’s success at the Farm Institution of New England Conference in April. It’s also influencing decisions other school districts are making regarding the direction of their food services.

“Amherst schools are making a decision on whether or not to be self-operating or to use a management company, which is what Amherst does now,” Harb said. “In the meeting, they discussed how Chicopee’s program is so exciting and has gathered a following.”

While providing healthy options is a major component to the ChicopeeFRESH program, another is ensuring children make healthy eating choices. That’s why FoodCorps service workers made available though the Kendall Grant are an important element of the operation. Shwachman and fellow service worker Jordyn Kessler are embedded primarily in the district’s elementary schools, engaging students in hands-on cooking and gardening activities and teaching them about nutrition.

Also, by taking advantage of the Massachusetts Farm to School nonprofit organization’s Harvest of the Month promotion, Shwachman said she and Kessler are able to conduct taste tests utilizing the local fruit or vegetable selected for the month. In February, the food was apples.

“This month we’re doing apple slices with what we’re calling a “pro-yo” dip, which is yogurt and sunbutter and cinnamon and honey,” she explained. “We’ve done some really interesting things in the past. Joe Czajkowski can spiralize different vegetable noodles, so we did garlic Parmesan butternut squash noodle. We’ve done applesauce, baked goods; literally all sorts of things.

“We try to do something different every time. The kids really look forward to it and get super excited for it.”

Shwachman said many students, especially younger ones, are gaining exposure to some fruits and vegetables for the first time.

“I had a girl today who had never tried cucumbers and she tried it and was just like, ‘Wow! I’m going to go home and tell my mom I like cucumbers,’” she said.

Keeping the experiences fun and engaging helps curtail some of the apprehension children may have about trying new things and when properly motivated, Shwachman said she was impressed with how much students were willing to try.

“Today we did a lesson on whole grains and we made pita pizzas with hummus and veggies. Today I challenged the kids to put at least two different vegetables on their pizza. I had multiple kids make second pizzas. It’s a feeling of pride and adventure,” she said. “It’s amazing what kids will eat and sometimes I think we underestimate kids. I think it helps that we’re younger and we’re also not their normal teachers or people telling them what they should eat.”

With a small team that can’t possibly reach every child individually, ChicopeeFRESH is also developing elements that can be incorporated into the curriculum for different subjects and grade levels.

“We’re still working on this, but the goal is we’ll have a guide going to K-12 for all of the seasons and the different subjects and it will be on the portal, which is accessible to all teachers,” Shwachman said. “The goal is by next fall teachers will be able to go online and access any of these lesson plans.”

Fostering healthy eating in school is important, but what about after the final bell rings? ChicopeeFRESH is working to bridge that gap as well by connecting with parents and the community.

“One of the nice things about this program is it is so media friendly,” Harb said. “Greta has created a social media presence to reach people beyond the schools so we post some of the meals and photos of the kids in the garden.”

The garden? Yes, some of Chicopee’s schools have developed their own gardens.

“We have three or four schools with gardens currently and two of them have afterschool garden clubs,” said. “We grow a lot. Soil in Chicopee is really good. If I drop a seed out of the bed, literally, it will grow anywhere. We had tomato plants growing 100 feet away.”

With this resource, ChicopeeFRESH is able to engage the community in several ways. This past year, Shwachman explained, the schools donated 30 pounds of lettuce to a local soup kitchen and served the rest of it in the cafeteria. Families are also encouraged to visit the gardens during the summer to reap its benefits and practice some of the healthy habits the children learn in school.

Given how difficult it is for some to access healthy food options, the garden can be a real asset, Shwachman added.

“A lot of areas of Chicopee are a food desert. Some areas like around [Gen. John J. Stefanik Memorial School], there’s not much. If you have a car, it’s only 10 minutes to a grocery store, but on foot, it’s not really possible to walk to a grocery store,” she said. “There are corner stores and gas stations and I see people walk by the garden on the way to go ‘grocery shoping’ and it’s overpriced and not overly fresh and really, it’s mostly just junk food. I think people appreciate being able to harvest things.”

The development of methods to ensure people are educated as to what and when to harvest is still a work in progress, she admitted.

“It is hard to communicate sometimes because people may harvest something that’s not ready or harvest too much of something, so there’s still some things we have to work out,” Shwachman said.

Outside of the schools, also ChicopeeFRESH hopes to extend some of its programming to other public resources.

“We’re starting to do programs at the Chicopee Public Library that will be open to everyone,” Shwachman said. “In February we’re making Valentine’s Day cards with potato stamps and beet paint. We’ll be doing different holiday activities and hopefully offering them to different age levels. It’s walking distance from the high school and the middle school, so hopefully we’ll be able to do some programming for the older kids.”

For more information on ChicopeeFRESH, go to or visit its social media presences on Facebook ( and Instagram (@chicopeefresh).

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