By Kaelin Lockhart
The Fayette County School System (FCSS) is beefing up local flavor on lunch trays thanks to a new partnership with Vista Farms and the Farm-to-School Program.
The Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries program encourages schools to purchase products from local farms, such as Vista Farms and its managers, Sarah Die-McElfresh and husband Scott. Vista Farms supplies beef for cafeteria classics, including sloppy Joes, chili and nachos.
The Fayette County partnership grew out of recent supply chain shortages.
“When we saw meat counters empty in 2020, Scott and I had to do something,” Die-McElfresh said. “We decided to do a drive-thru at our community farmers market, where people drove up, gave us $20 and received a 5-pound bag of ground beef.”
Within the first hour, they sold more than 800 pounds.
Through the drive-thru market, Die-McElfresh sparked a friendship with Jenna Mayfield, FCSS Child Nutrition Program director. Since her start as director, Mayfield has focused on promoting healthy, well-balanced meals while emphasizing food education.
FCSS implemented the Farm-to-School Program in 2019 with local strawberries. Mayfield’s next goal was to branch out from produce to protein for her six county schools.
“We’re wanting to get more locally grown products into schools…and expose our kids to where our food actually comes from,” Mayfield said.
After realizing their visions aligned, Die-McElfresh and Mayfield teamed up to make local beef in Fayette County schools a reality through Farm Fresh Fridays, where menus center on local products. The school’s first celebratory Friday fell in October, National Farm-to-School Month.
“We did a cornbread bowl with Vista Farms beef chili and a little sprinkle of cheddar cheese on top,” Mayfield said. “Everybody’s excited to get local food into the schools.”
Die-McElfresh attributes the program’s success to her involvement in Sweet Grown Alabama, the state’s agricultural branding program. Sweet Grown Alabama creates opportunities for farmers and community members to connect and collaborate on projects such as Farm-to-School.
Watching students bite into dishes like saucy sloppy Joes featuring Vista Farms beef is rewarding, said Die-McElfresh.
“It’s probably one of the happiest things I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “When I see students enjoy our beef, I know I’ve done my job to the best of my ability.”
Visit AlabamaFarmtoSchool.org to learn more.