Cathie Anderson: Consultants want to find niche market for California …

Los Angeles schools serve something like 500,000 meals a day, Ann M. Evans told me, so if they put a California fruit or vegetable on their menu, it can be a game changer for state farmers.

Evans has long promoted the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients not just in schools but everywhere ? homes, state parks, hospitals, you name it.

You may know Evans as a co-founder of the Davis Food Co-op or as the city’s former mayor. Perhaps you met her Friday when the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis, named her 2012’s outstanding alumnus.

Or, maybe you’re a school food service director in Los Angeles, Davis or elsewhere who’s attended a cooking class with Evans and her business partner, James Beard award winner Georgeanne Brennan.

Their firm, Evans Brennan, has been focusing lately on trying to crack open a niche market for California agriculture: California schools.

“We work with school districts … interested in serving more fresh food and locally sourced food,” Evans said. “? We can do policy and we can do programs, but one of the things we can also do is help them source the food, find farmers.”

The two consultants will play a critical role in developing a farm-to-school program for all five districts in Yolo County, where John Young is the state’s only county agricultural commissioner leading such an effort. He meets regularly with food service directors.

Last week, they all learned Yolo County would receive a $400,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture to find ways to increase school purchases of fruits, nuts and other specialty crops.

One slippery niche

California produced 870,000 gallons of olive oil in 2009, so Berkeley’s Center for Ecoliteracy asked just how much California olive oil was used in six school districts known for improving school food.

The center put Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M. Evans on the case, and the results astonished even food service directors when Evans recently shared them. It was 25 gallons.

The six districts serve 12 percent of state students.

Brennan and Evans found only slightly better results when they looked at 11 other California-grown crops as part of the inquiry for the Center for Ecoliteracy.

“One of our goals is just to be able to get more fresh food and then to encourage school districts to be cooking it,” said Michael Stone, the senior editor for the center. “What a lot of them have come to do in the last decades is to buy it pre-processed and just thaw it and reheat it.”

Ecoliteracy had Brennan and Evans create a cookbook sharing their ideas. Released last year, it’s already been downloaded more than 30,000 times from

A farmer for all seasons

As Yolo County Ag Commissioner John Young looked for ways to expand school purchases of fresh produce, he knew that he’d have to find a farmer willing to take a risk.

Fortunately, Capay Organic‘s Thaddeus Barsotti, aware of childhood obesity rates, saw it as risk for the right reasons.

As part of a Harvest of the Month program, Barsotti agreed to help ensure that every student in Yolo County schools and programs would receive education about seasonal produce, where it comes from and how it tastes. Districts buy the produce from Capay Organic, but the payment doesn’t cover all the costs.

“Kids don’t want to eat mainly apples,” said Barbara Archer, communications manager at Capay Organic. “If they get a crisp red pepper that was harvested at the farm just a couple days ago, … that tastes good to them.”

If other districts implement the program, the profit-loss scales would shift. A study by EcoTrust in Portland, Ore., found that for every $1 that two districts there spent locally on food, an additional 86 cents entered the local economy.

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