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Roberta Jacobs works to bring farm-fresh food into Norwich schools

Published 08/21/2013 12:00 AM

Where some may see limitations, Roberta Jacobs sees only opportunities.

No money for anything beyond the basics? Apply for special state programs. Want a higher federal reimbursement rate? Adhere to stricter nutritional guidelines for the school lunches you serve and get 6 more cents per meal.

In the latest installment of "Jacobs makes it work," the food service director of the Norwich Public Schools faced a conundrum: How to get more local produce to the students when much of the growing season in Connecticut is in the summer, when school is not in session? And how to get the goods to the schools when farmers are unable to deliver them?

Jacobs applied for, and received, a $50,000 state grant that, with a match from the food service budget for the same amount, will help her overcome these hurdles.

The plan is this: With new kitchen equipment — a steamer, a blast chiller and bagging equipment — and a van that travels to a handful of local farms, Jacobs will buy up produce from these farms and flash-freeze them so that she can then serve the produce year-round.

Not only will this get more fresh, local fruits and vegetables on students' lunch trays, but the extra processing step will also help farmers by giving them consistent, reliable demand for their goods.

"Instead of buying food that you don't know where it comes from," Jacobs said, "you can say it's local, this was grown right down the road. Enjoy."

Problem: Solved.

Farms that Jacobs hopes to tap for local produce include LoPresti Farm in Preston, One Acres Farm in Lebanon, Maple Lane Farms in Preston, and Palazzi Orchard in Killingly. Many of the farmers already work with Jacobs as part of the state's Farm-to-School program, which promotes the use of Connecticut-grown farm products in school meals.

Like the farm-to-table movement that encourages use of locally grown food in restaurants, working with local farms gets fresh, healthy produce to children who may not otherwise be exposed to them.

It's also all part of a greater effort to teach students so distanced from their food source where their squash and peas and carrots come from.

Hopefully, students will one day ask, "Can we get a bag of pea pods?" instead of "Can we get a bag of chips?" Jacobs said.

A need becomes a career

Jacobs, 61, fell into the schools' food service field out of basic need. A stay-at-home mother of two in her 30s, she was going through a divorce and needed a job whose hours would roughly match the hours her children were at school.

She remembered her time working as a waitress at age 18 and thinking she could run the restaurant better than the manager. So she charged ahead, going back to school and getting an associate degree in food service management.

"(I) never knew where I would end up, but I just kept going," she said. "It's a mindset, I think."

She found a job with the Columbia school district. A couple of years later, she moved onto the Stafford Springs schools, where she spent 11 years running the food service program there.

A North Stonington native who now lives in Old Lyme, Jacobs in 2001 became the food service director in Norwich, a school district where at the time, more than half the students qualified for free or reduced lunch, based on their families' income levels. Today, that percentage is 76.

In a district of close to 4,000 students, where poverty is widespread and students speak some 30 different languages at home, Jacobs faces some unique challenges. The food service program is self-funded, meaning it pays its operations and salaries for some 60 part-time and full-time employees with what it makes from school lunch sales and gets reimbursed from the government.

It's a fine balancing act. Jacobs has learned to maximize resources by actively applying for grants offered through state and federal programs. She signed up for grants that brought a six-week intergenerational cooking program to the schools. She sponsored a FoodCorps volunteer, who, among other things, started a school community garden, and she got the district involved in the state's Summer Meals on the Move program, which offers some qualifying families $60 EBT cards per child per summer month that students are not in school.

"She's very innovative," schools Superintendent Abby Dolliver said. "And always with the kids in mind. So that anything that she can do to provide more for the kids or any program that comes up or grants, pretty much (anything) that we talk about or she notices, she tries to make it work within her budget."

Put another way: "She participates in everything that the government has to offer," said Cher Golas, the free and reduced lunch secretary who, along with bookkeeper Michelle Falvey, keeps the food service office running.

The extra mile

In her 12 years in the Norwich schools, Jacobs has been able to offer students just a little bit more than what's required, stretch the dollar just a little bit farther.

Where some with such a busy workload might just go ahead and order school lunch staples such as chicken patties and macaroni and cheese, Jacobs this year gave a group of 150 students the opportunity to taste-test different varieties and select the ones that will be served this school year.

"She empowers the kids, which I think is important," said Susan Beeman, program director at the University of Connecticut Health Center's Center for Public Health and Health Policy, who has been working with Jacobs on nutrition programs in Norwich.

Not content to select just a few tried-and-true sites for the summer lunches the district serves to all children ages 18 and under through the National School Lunch Program, Jacobs is continually seeking new locations to set up lunch carts at — spots kids naturally drift to, not just for food.

This summer, the Norwich schools set up at about 26 sites throughout the city.

And this school year, in addition to lunch, the schools will begin serving free breakfast to all students, not just those who qualify for free or reduced cafeteria food due to their families' low incomes. Jacobs said she and Dolliver determined they could afford to provide the service to everyone and felt it was a way to ensure all students started the day off on the right foot.

Ernie Koschmieder, food service director at Groton Public Schools who worked closely with Jacobs on the latest grant, said in an email that Jacobs' work is "endless." He said he related to daily challenges she faces in trying to offer as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible while staying within budget.

"Roberta is a champion in my eyes as she is always going the distance to bring farm to school; fruits and vegetables into her district for the nutritional goodness and well being of all the Norwich Public School students," he wrote.