As students at Leverett and Erving elementary schools dig into their vegetables this fall, they may be getting a taste of local farms thanks to a new collaboration between two organizations in Hampshire and Franklin counties.
The Hampshire Council of Goverments, through its purchasing cooperative, and the Franklin County Community Development Corp. have announced a Pioneer Valley Vegetable Venture for 16 school cafeterias and organizations around western Massachusetts, one that will offer locally grown fruits and vegetables for their menus.
The co-op links schools and other bulk food buyers as far apart as Williamstown and Petersham with local farms and processors. They are all to be part of a purchasing bid in a contract with Thurston Foods through next July 1. Thurston is a wholesale food distributor in Connecticut that serves the Northeast.
Arranging to sell more local produce to institutional consumers through the bulk flash freezing process provides more business for local farmers, leaders of the organizations said.
With the CDC’s new cold-storage facility now being built at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield and its individual quick freeze equipment in place, institutions like the Amherst Survival Center, Hampshire Regional High School and elementary schools in Leverett, Erving, Williamstown, Williamsburg, Lanesboro and beyond have become part of the group bid to purchase produce that is harvested and flash frozen at peak freshness from local farms.
Once the new equipment is completed next month, it will more than quadruple the CDC’s capacity and make it more convenient, so peppers, broccoli, squash and other crops won’t have to be brought to an inconvenient outdoor freezer.
John Waite, the CDC’s executive director, said other area school districts, including Frontier and Mohawk Trail, already aggregate their produce purchases from the Food Processing Center through a Collaborative Educational Services bid.
He added, “I think all of Franklin County’s schools are either in one (aggregation) or the other.”
“The addition of new IQF technology allows us to offer fruit and vegetables to schools and local community groups through the … co-op’s bid, which keeps money in our community, preserves family farmers and open space, and adds to a thriving regional economy,” Waite said.
Having Thurston deliver orders for these schools is “a big step over the past year,” Waite said. “It’s a start. Having these aggregation folks involved is wonderful.”
HCOG spokeswoman Catherine Welker said under the contract, the programs are not bound to buy the produce, but may get them at the negotiated bid price for regular use or specific events.
Even before the current expansion of its cold storage and freezing capacity, the Greenfield commercial kitchen has been quick-freezing local produce for area schools and other institutions to extend the sales opportunities for farmers around the region.