Farm to School Champion: E. Nichole Taylor
Director of Food Services, Chichester School District, Delaware County, PA
Tell us about yourself and your connection to the farm to school movement.
I’ve been a food service director for over ten years now. I’ve always been very passionate about food and getting fresh fruits and vegetables into our students’ hands. I think it is so important to have that foundation of understanding where our food comes from and when to enjoy them when they’re at peak freshness. I love to buy in season because I think that is the best way to introduce children to produce.
Growing up in the country, I was surrounded by fresh fruits and vegetables. My grandmother had a huge garden and it was always a joy for me to be able to go out there and play in the garden, constantly picking and eating fruits and vegetables. Sometimes I would get in trouble--my grandmother would say “I know you’ve been out in the garden, I can tell by your face, you were all in the blueberries!” It was a great foundation.
Having worked in Delaware County, Pennsylvania for most of my career, I can see the disparity for those who didn’t grow up around that and whose produce supply only comes from the grocery store or bodegas. In some of the areas that I work, there is very little space to garden. It’s always been really important to me to be able to offer fresh fruits and vegetables to our students. When I found out about farm to school, I knew that was something I wanted to do and something I wanted to be a part of. The Pennsylvania Department of Education and other agencies and groups have been helpful in connecting us with resources and I always try to utilize them.
Can you say more about the resources you’ve used (e.g., Harvest of the Month)?
When I arrived at Chichester, the district was already participating in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. I always stressed to our vendor the importance of local products. When Harvest of the Month was introduced, I was able to align the programs. But I only have two sites that qualify for FFVP so I also worked with our other produce vendors to ensure that Harvest of the Month was featured on the lunch menus at least once a week. Some of the vendors also provide literature on where the products come from, which is always really nice.
I’ve also been able to learn about school garden options from neighboring districts like Great Valley and from resources provided by USDA. We were also able to get a [Pennsylvania Farm to School] grant this year to start creating growing stations for the kids when they are back in school with the hybrid model. I’ve partnered up with several teachers who are going to incorporate this into everyday learning. So the students will plants and observe these products that will ultimately end up in the cafeteria. My goal is to eventually have these stations at every school and to have outdoor gardens at the elementary, middle, and high school level.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
I love what I do. I love being able to share a positive food experience with students and to provide them with nutritious meals. You especially see the positive impact that you have in times like this when students really need and benefit from school meals. And we’re able to provide them with really high quality meals. This is why I do what I do — I am able to provide a service that meets a basic need. We can’t function if we don’t eat. If a child has to worry about where their next meal is coming from, that math test is not going to be on their mind right now. So again, being able to meet that need, this was the best career choice I ever made. I was a chef previously — I’ve been in different parts of the industry — but when I started in school food, I knew this was what I was meant to do.
What do you find most challenging?
Definitely the paperwork and the regulations! It can be hard to balance the various stringent standards with creating an appealing, delicious meal. Especially when you are introducing kids to new foods that they’re not used to, you have to season it up a bit! And sometimes I find it difficult to create recipes for example, within the sodium limits.
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
COVID-19 has completely changed how we do our job and how we are viewed by the community. People do not get into this field for fame or glory — we have a passion for feeding kids. But one thing people may not realize is that, we have to be very fluid and flexible and always have a plan. Although no one could have completely planned for this situation. When schools started closing, everything had to switch gears very quickly. I got a call on a Friday at 3 p.m. where I was told schools were going virtual Monday and was asked how I could provide meals to our students. I spent the whole weekend trying to get ready and prepared. And we have to keep going with the flow, not knowing how long we’re going to be in this situation. And every week we learn something new about what works well and doesn’t. But you constantly need to adapt your plans. It’s been hectic, but it’s also been gratifying to be out there on the front lines ensuring the community is fed.
What challenges or inequities are you seeing as a result of COVID-19?
Following both state and federal regulations at a time when things are changing rapidly is challenging. And then just supplies — at one point we couldn’t get basic things, like peanut butter and jelly. And there are a lot of supplies that go into grab n go meals.
Are there any opportunities, innovations, or collaborations that you’ve seen or been a part of as a result of COVID-19?
One thing that is great about school food service is that we’re not competitive, we all have the same common goal. We’ve always been very supportive of one another, and especially now.
In general, what would be your advice for those inspired by your work and excited to try and replicate it in their own community?
My advice would be: You are not on an island. There are so many people out there willing to help. Use all of your resources! Talk to your state agencies, your colleagues, local farmers and partners. Get out there, introduce yourself, let people know what your plans are. You might be surprised by how many teachers and parents want to support you. So use your resources and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just go for it!
In general, what opportunities do you see for farm to school in the future?
For our district, my plan is to grow farm to school and introduce different types of farming techniques to our students, like aeroponics, aquaponics, etc. There are so many ways to grow food, even in small spaces. And I really want our high school students to be just as involved as our elementary schools. I want to grow that love of food. It’s important for us to not just rely on grocery stores, but to be able to grow our own.