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The Next Chapter for Farm to School: Milling Whole Grains in the Cafeteria

Nan Kohler founded the milling company Grist & Toll in Pasadena, California in 2013 and her freshly milled flours have been a hit with bakers, chefs, and locavores ever since. But her abiding wish is to sell California-grown, freshly milled whole grain flour, which is nutritionally superior to refined flour, to the public schools in the area.

“If I could sell to anybody, I would sell to the school lunch programs,” Kohler says. “Then we start those little healthy bodies young, and we change those palates to look forward to delicious whole grain foods. And set them up for healthier lifestyle and eating habits going forward.”

The problem is that schools typically can’t afford Kohler’s flour. This fall, however, she is midwifing a project that will get whole grains into two California school districts. Along with the California Wheat Commission, she was recently awarded a $144,000 California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) grant that will enable Shandon Elementary in San Luis Obispo County to be the first public school in the U.S. to make its own flour using a stone mill on site. The grant, which is funded through March 2023, will cover the cost of the mill and two pasta extruders as well as the training for cafeteria staff to use both.

Dingle elementary school children visited the CWC in 2019 for a field trip and here they were processing whole wheat pasta with the wheat they harvested that season from their school wheat garden.

Elementary students processing whole wheat pasta with the wheat they harvested that season from their school’s wheat garden.

Two additional grants for $20,000—one awarded to Shandon Joint Unified School District and the other to nearby San Miguel Joint Union School District, both along California’s central coast—will buy enough whole grains from local farmers to provide both districts with freshly milled flour for nearly two years. Claudia Carter, executive director at the California Wheat Commission, says the Wheat2School project will provide students in these two districts with nutrient-dense, whole grain foods.

Over the past 20 years, the farm-to-school movement has prioritized getting locally grown fruits and vegetables onto cafeteria trays. The “grain-to-school” movement, though, is just starting to gain steam. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), passed in 2010, improved nutrition standards nationally, requiring grain-based foods served in public schools to be made with at least 51 percent whole grains. It also provided $5 million annually in funding for farm-to-school projects across the country.

“Over the past 5 to 7 years, we’ve seen a real increase in folks doing farm-to-school that haven’t been just fruits and vegetables,” says Anna Mullen, the communications director at the National Farm to School Network. “We’ve seen an expansion of the idea—to wheat, grains, fish, protein, bison.” Mullen credits the HHFKA for codifying support for farm-to-school projects, and spurring innovation—including projects like the one at Shandon.

Ahead-of-the-curve school districts have been sourcing local wheat for years. Two in Oregon—Portland Public Schools and Bend-La Pine Schools—have been baking with flour from Camas Country Mill in the Willamette Valley for instance. In Georgia, Burke County Public Schools has been sourcing whole wheat flour, whole grain grits, and corn meal from Freeman’s Mill in Statesboro for 7 years.

And other districts are beginning to embrace the idea as well: Two years ago, the Chicago-based company Gourmet Gorilla began sourcing wheat from Midwestern farmers to make oat bars, muffins, and pizza with 51 percent whole grain for schools in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Louisiana. And in upstate New York, a dozen public schools began working with pasta manufacturer Sflogini and Birkett Mills to serve students a 51 percent whole wheat fusilli and macaroni.

However, the Shandon project is one of the first that will exceed the National School Lunch Program’s requirement. For at least the next two years, all the bread, pizza, tortillas, and even pasta will be made with 100 percent whole wheat.

‘The Best Tortilla I’ve Have Ever Had’

Claudia Carter, who is working on a Ph.D. in nutrition at North Dakota State University, is passionate about the Wheat2School project for several reasons.

Chuck Buckingham lead volunteer using his wheat thresher at Whitehead Elementary school 2nd school wheat garden in Woodland

Chuck Buckingham, lead volunteer, using his wheat thresher to harvest at Whitehead Elementary in Woodland.

The majority of the students at Shandon and San Miguel are farmworkers’ kids, and most are Latinx. “My food service manager [at Shandon] told me, ‘For some of these kids, [school breakfast and lunch] are the only two meals they eat throughout the day,’” Carter says. “So I have to feed them the best I can. How can I be serving them a Pop-Tart, canned fruit, and fruit juice? If you add that together it’s 65 grams of sugar—and that’s just their breakfast!”

That list describes the actual menu at the Woodland Unified School District just outside Sacramento, where Carter launched a previous wheat-to-school project. And it’s a far cry from that kids have less than 25 grams (six teaspoons) of sugar a day.

“For some of these kids, [school breakfast and lunch] are the only two meals they eat throughout the day—so I have to feed them the best I can.”

Breakfasts like this, Carter says, can not only lead to childhood diabetes, they also lead to sugar spikes (and crashes) that undermine sustained learning. She points out that whole grains, on the other hand, contain not only more fiber than white flour, they contain Vitamin E, an antioxidant that is important for vision and a properly developing nervous system. (The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has called these both “shortfall nutrients” since they are so under-consumed by the U.S. population.) Whole grains also are rich in B vitamins and protein, both of which are important for brain health. And though some whole grain recipes—like whole-wheat muffins—contain added sugar, the levels tend to be lower than the processed food included in most school breakfasts.

Some nutrition professionals pointed to the high percentage of whole grain foods that went to waste in the first few years after the HHKA, but Carter believes that you can influence kids’ palates by feeding them high-quality whole grains early on.

100% whole wheat cinnamon rolls using same recipe used for bread rolls that will be served at the schools: Shandon and San Miguel.

The 100 percent whole wheat cinnamon rolls prepared for Shandon and San Miguel schools.

In Ecuador, where she grew up, bread and tortillas made with whole grain are a rarity. It was her husband, who hails from South Dakota, who converted her to eating them. “As a result, our kids have been eating whole wheat stuff since they were little,” Carter says. “I buy all the stuff Nan produces at Grist & Toll, and I make pancakes, bread, and cakes.”

Carter is also on the board of a nonprofit called Yolo Farm-to-Fork, which funds edible school garden programs throughout Yolo County in California. A few years ago, in an effort to introduce other kids to these delicious, nutritious baked goods, she helped launch Yolo’s wheat-to-school project at another elementary school in the county. The students grew wheat—and, in a single day, harvested it and milled it themselves.

“That same day we had stations for pasta-making, tortilla-making, and bread-baking,” Carter says. “Keep in mind that 80 percent of these kids are Mexican-American. They grew up eating white tortillas, like me. And every single kid had a huge smile on their face when eating their tortilla warm. I heard, unanimously, ‘This is the best tortilla I have ever had.’”