These Cafeterias Offer Farm to School Fare

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These Cafeterias Offer Farm to School Fare

How a Hampton Roads, Virginia, startup is working with farmers to increase community access to local food.

(Photo by sk / CC BY-ND 2.0)

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When Breon Clemons’ daughter was about to start grade school three years ago, he started thinking about what she was going to eat while at school.

“At that time she had fresh food for a while because I had a home garden and I wanted her to continue eating fresh,” Clemons says. “Then it made me realize all these other kids eat less wholesome food.”

Clemons did some research and found that the school district where he lives in Hampton Roads, Virginia, was not procuring local or seasonable produce Furthermore, the region he lived in was classified as a food desert — even though there were many farms in the region.

GoGreen founder Breon Clemons (Photo courtesy of Breon Clemons)

That led him to launch GoGreen Farms and Greenhouses in 2018 with Ellen Matthews, a food hub and a farm agribusiness that partners with Virginia farmers to help school systems access local food.

GoGreen helps fill a crucial need highlighted by agriculture secretary Tom Vilsak, who proposed finding ways to help small-to-midsized farms cater to wholesale food service, such as schools and institutional programs, in order to expand domestic markets during the pandemic. However, the challenge of equipment and processing food for wholesale service is one few farmers can afford to scale to in rapidly-changing times.

“It’s hard to aggregate [local food] and put it into institutions where it could be used,” he says. “My company — we’re aggregators — or distributors. Farmers can distribute, but you need aggregators to do it in a large capacity.”

GoGreen has grown from 20 farms in 2019, when they received a crucial SOIL Loan from CDFI Virginia Foodshed Capital, to nearly 40 today. While they’re not limited to schools, Clemons estimates 98% of his business is contracted with K-12 school systems. In addition to providing local produce, GoGreen helps schools build gardens, providing tactile lessons for growing minds and bodies so they understand where food really comes from.

“We don’t only service the schools with the products, we actually come in and teach the students where food comes from and how to be healthy and sustainable,” Clemons says.

Hopkins Road Elementary, a public school in Chesterfield County, is one of five schools that Clemon’s team has helped build a garden so far. Rebecca Smart, a STEAM teacher at Hopkins who is working with the garden, says her students have been full of excitement and anticipation as they’ve been clearing out the beds for Spring planting.

“It is definitely having a positive effect on the kids!” Smart says. “I have students ask, ‘When are we going to the garden again?’ They’re building lots of real-world skills, like learning what plants grow indoors versus outdoors, and the planting zone for our area. They’ve been looking at food substitution, so they know how they can use that in the kitchen. We talked about making a pizza with cauliflower crust, so they can grow and make something with them.”

Outside of its school program, GoGreen does health and wellness workshops, such as workouts for women with healthy foods or fresh-pressed juices provided.

“We talk about how to build your body and what fruit to eat post-workout,” Clemons says. “A lot of people don’t know what fruits do for the body. At the end of the day, our mission is to help wellness growth and surround the community with knowledge.”

Michael Reilly, CEO of Virginia Foodshed Capital, says they have discontinued the SOIL loans as a special fund, and instead have made foodshed loans a regular, ongoing focus. He says working with GoGreen was a great example of the kind of work they wanted to do.

“It’s a business helping to support local farmers and feeding schoolchildren, and really connecting all the pieces together,” Reilly says. “And, Breon who is an owner, as a Black entrepreneur was somebody we were really excited to support.”

Looking forward, Clemons says the pandemic was eye-opening and has actually helped some people become more sustainable.

“We’re just a catalyst for change,” he says. “We started with one system in February of 2020 and now we’re up to 11 school systems as of February of 2022. We service close to 300,000 students, and we’re going to keep growing.”

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This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is generously supported by Partners for the Common Good. Sign up for PCG’s CapNexus newsletter at capnexus.org.

Hadassah Patterson has written for news outlets for more than a decade, contributing for seven years to local online news and with 15 years of experience in commercial copywriting. She currently covers politics, business, social justice, culture, food and wellness.

Tags: cdfi futuresfood accessschoolsvirginia

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