As the Farm to Cafeteria Coordinator for Farm Fresh Rhode Island, one of my favorite jobs is promoting RI Grown foods to RI senior centers. Last summer, Farm Fresh piloted “Farm to Senior,” a local-foods promotion initiative targeting RI senior centers. The idea was born while planning the third year of a successful “Healthy Servings for Seniors” nutrition education program in partnership with University of Rhode Island SNAP-Ed. Coordinating and presenting that program in 5 RI senior centers each year made us aware of the opportunity to increase access to fresh, local food among more RI seniors.
After one of our annual meetings with the RI Department of Elderly Affairs, we realized that senior center “congregate meals” were quite similar to school meals. Low budgets, centralized kitchens, and limited resources are some of the challenges each sector faces. Farm Fresh decided to apply some of our successful “Farm to School” technical assistance and promotion techniques to senior congregate meal sites to see if it could help improve the meals. It worked!
First, we laid a lot of groundwork by figuring out who the different agencies and people are that are serving meals to RI seniors. We mapped those agencies and people, including food and nutrition services directors, caterers, chefs, and their produce purveyors. (It’s a complicated structure!) We reached out to all 6 agencies to offer assistance in sourcing and promoting RI Grown produce. Ultimately, we worked with 2 agencies that prepare and serve meals to 40 senior centers.
By meeting with those chefs that write and prepare the menus and the produce distributors who serve them, RI Grown produce was worked into menus from July through November. As RI Grown produce was being served in the meals, Farm Fresh representatives were presenting programs and activities in the centers to raise awareness of the local food on the menu and build demand for more. You can read all about the details of our project and the success of the pilot in this Farm to Senior Report.
Our feedback from the community was great! Centers appreciated our assistance in promoting the meal. Attendees loved the fresh food and especially the activities. Our “Local Foods Trivia” game was definitely the most popular program we did. Trivia questions often included a local-food sample “clue.” Some of the teams even got a little rowdy during the game. At one particularly competitive center, seniors had bets going on the answers to some of the more challenging questions. Our coveted local-food prizes included pints of berries, juicy peaches, fresh-picked vegetables and “Fresh Bucks” to spend at farmers markets. A good time, and a good meal, was always had by all.
Farm Fresh RI (especially me!) enjoys working with the seniors so much. The meal structure is very similar to school lunch, but at senior centers there is no time limit on lunch and no common core standards to meet, so the fun can go on for hours. I have been blessed to develop some good friendships as a result of my work in those centers. Cranston Senior Enrichment Center has been a great partner. Chef Ray Sinapi of Cranston Senior Services was kind enough to invite me to appear on their TV show, 55+ No Limits. Together we showcased tips on storing fresh produce and reminded viewers that Senior Farmers Market Coupons make fresh, local food more affordable and accessible. That invitation proved to me that Cranston Senior Services really values Farm Fresh RI’s services and considers us a community partner.
Our work to promote good nutrition and local foods in RI senior centers will continue this summer. Between our Healthy Servings for Seniors and Farm to Senior programs, Farm Fresh will work to expand senior access to healthy foods by providing them with the knowledge and resources to choose and obtain that food. We hope this inspires others to consider ways to increase access to local foods among senior populations in their community. If I can be of any assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chef Kimberly Clark is the Farm to Cafeteria Coordinator at Farm Fresh RI, promoting RI grown produce to RI school communities. She is a member of the Northeast Regional Steering Committee for the National Farm to School Network, a contributing member of Farm to Institution in New England, and affiliated with School Food FOCUS.