On December 2, 2013, a group of farmers, food service staff, educators, community organizers and others gathered in Pearl, Mississippi, for the 2nd Annual Mississippi Farm To Cafeteria Conference, hosted by the Mississippi Food Policy Council. After the conference, I caught up with Rose Tate, a Mississippi Delta-Native and current Food Service Director for Mound Bayou School District. She received her B.A. in Finance from Delta State and a M.S. in Health Education from the Mississippi University for Women.
James Tolleson: How did you become a food service director?
Rose Tate: Well, I kind of fell into the job. My aunt was a food service worker while I was in Elementary school. And I used to go out to the cafeteria and set inside the cafeteria and watch her. In the late 60s… They basically cooked from scratch. They had these old heavy pots that they had to lift and put on the old stove… Everything was done by hand.
I had a real good background in math, but I didn’t want to be a math teacher and I liked accounting and finance and all that kind of stuff. Well, after I graduated from college… I applied at my old school for a bookkeeping job, a secretary of bookkeeping job with the food service department. From there on, it kinda launched my career.
J: What kinds of changes have you seen over your 30 years in food service?
R: Oh god, a lot of changes. When I first started out a lot of the food was being prepared from scratch. We had a homemade pizza that the kids raved about and loved to get. In a period of however many years from my first job as secretary bookkeeper to where I am now, we’ve got from making homemade pizza to purchasing the pizza. I think these kids would probably murder you if you gave them homemade pizza. They can’t identify with that.
J: How has that impacted the cafeteria workers on a daily basis?
R: Well, we used to have to have more workers. It downsized the workers because when it’s processed you don’t have to have that many people making the food because the food comes pre-packaged… There was a time when we had 8-12 workers in the cafeteria. Now you only need from 3-4, depending on how many kids you have. We have equipment that is considered more efficient, meaning that you need less workers to process what you need to do. Whereas, back several years, the only thing that we really had was the oven and the stove and the refrigerator and maybe a mixer.
J: What made you go back to school for your Master’s in Health Education?
R: They [the food service industry] were talking about obesity and what was healthy: obesity and fatty foods and trans fats and all this stuff and I had no idea what they were talking about. My background was in finance… I had taken about 12 hours of nutrition so I had general perspective of what I was doing but I had no idea about setting up health programs, wellness, obesity, you know, “what causes it?”, “how does it impact our area?”, “how can we deal with it from the perspective of a food service program?” So I got an opportunity [to learn more].
J: And then, tell me about the first process for doing a farm-to-school purchase. When did that first happen?
R: Well I had actually purchased some farm-to-school products from the Alcorn Extension Service that’s about maybe 10 miles down the street from where my school is located. I purchased collard greens from them… I got turnips and mustards from them too.
And then I went to a couple of national conventions: National Food Nutrition Association Conventions. They were talking about farm-to-school and… encouraging us to buy from local farmers, but I didn’t know any farmers locally that could provide me with a lot of the fresh produce. Then these regulations came out that we had to prepare more fresh fruits and vegetables.
And I’m sort of thinking: if we put all these vegetables out there that our kids are new to… they eat greens pretty good. They eat broccoli pretty good, but all of this other stuff, and to have more of it, like raw carrots, raw celery, that kind of stuff. I hadn’t introduced it to them since I’d been here, so I didn’t know if a new group of kids, especially at the elementary school would even identify with it. So I came back and started talking to our elementary school food service staff and we come up with the idea to do our garden, plant us a little garden. So, we did, we planted us a little garden… so the kids could see how the vegetables was growing and they could relate what was in the garden to what they was eating on the serving line. So I think the first year we started out with tomatoes and maybe some okra or something. We planted different things cause they would see okra in their soup and not really know what it was. But we started there and next year we got some volunteers. I think some grandparents came from in the community and we planted and harvested that year… And the classes started teaching nutrition to the students and our students did begin to eat vegetables and identify with them a little bit better, a lot better. When they were taught in the classroom, they would actually come to the cafeteria and if they saw some of the fruits and vegetables that they had been taught about you could hear them say the benefits: “we eat grapes cause grapes do this for our body. Grapes are brainfood.” They would come through the serving line saying that so we knew that they were being taught that inside the classroom.
J: How do you decide who you purchase from?
R: If you can supply me the same thing that my produce company’s supplying me, I look at the quality and quantity and price and go from there. Usually, I like to buy as fresh as I possibly can. If I know that I’m getting some fresh broccoli right out of somebody’s garden compared to something that’s come through my produce company from California or Florida, that has been picked and packaged and I may be getting it two weeks after it’s been picked, I’d rather have something that’s been picked three days ago.
J: What do you see as your biggest challenges to purchasing local foods?
R: The lack of suppliers. And we need reparable suppliers. You need people that you can trust that have farms or are growing products that are safe for our kids, that are not using a lot of chemicals and are doing it the wholesome way. Most of the farmers that I’ve dealt with, I’ve kinda checked them out.
J: How does the price of local products compare to your vendor? Is it higher?
R: Well, it was relatively the same. My produce company is more competitive. They kinda dropped their prices a little bit to be competitive with where I was buying local. When he found out that I was buying collard greens local, they let me know that they’d go to another buyer and get them a lot a cheaper. But I wanted fresh not cheap.
I think that the motivation is there—we just don’t have the products. It just needs to be set up from a business standpoint. It needs to be set up like: farmers for northern Mississippi; farmers for central Mississippi; farmers for southern Mississippi. You need a distribution center: somebody who’s making sure we’re getting what we need, that it’s coming out of the field. Somebody to take an order at the beginning of the year and assure us that farmer A has this and you’ll be getting it around September 30th or whatever. That’s what we need. We need somebody to come between us and the farmer and supply us what we need.
J: As a last question: In terms of the future of farm-to-school in Mississippi, what advice would you give to food service directors and what advice would you give to farmers?
R: My advice would be, to farmers first: there is a market in Mississippi for fresh farm-raised products. That’s coming from meat products, beef, pork, on down to your fruits and vegetables. There is a market. We, as food service directors, want to buy wholesome, healthy food for our kids. And with the obesity rate being at the top of the scale for Mississippi, we think that if we supply fresher food, if we supply healthier food to our kids, it would help combat the obesity problem. I know that there is a market and that once we have sources to supply that market, there will be jobs available for people that want to work in Mississippi. We have the available land; we have the resources. I don’t know what the mindset is for working, you know, because we have gotten away from farming in Mississippi. But Mississippi is a jewel. Cotton was King here years ago. And I don’t see why fruits and vegetables and food can’t be King now.
And to the food service directors, I would say that we need to push for farm-to-school. We need to push for healthier food in our cafeterias. And the healthier food is gonna be the food that comes out the ground, that’s fresh. If you can cut down processing to 5 days from 10 days. If we can buy here from right under our noses, it would be better for us, it would be better for our economy, it would be better for the state of Mississippi.