May 18, 2022

Celebrating diversity with a culturally enhanced Buffalo Farm to School program

The WNY farmed food landscape continues to change. Buffalo’s Farm to School program takes a deep dive to better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse community.

There’s an innovative movement at hand, fueled by those who want to see all students living a healthier life – soul, spirit, and body. After all, everything is connected, right?

Eating junk food has been an accepted practice at WNY School for far too long. Orange drink that does not contain oranges. Mystery meats. Pizza. Grilled cheese. Hot dogs and burgers. Sweet desserts. These are all cheap alternatives – easy-to-find, freezable and reheatable foods – that children have become accustomed to eating over the years, regardless of the schools they attend.

But times are changing. Better late than never.

Currently, schools are rethinking the ways they can interact with a new wave of local farmers, in order to introduce more appropriate foods into meal programs. To that end, we are now seeing a welcome initiative from the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) Farm to School program, which is in place to meet the dietary needs of a culturally diverse student base.

Head of PFC Sharif Abdi and Mahamud Mberwa (PFC Farm Mentor and Farmer Incubator – pictured above) trained BPS food service staff and Buffalo Farm to School team members to prepare githeri, kachumbari and chapati – dishes native to their home countries. Photo credit: Cheryl Bilinski

This is done by supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) farmers and producers who have a better understanding of the needs of an underserved segment of the student population. The initiative also provides crucial support to formerly disenfranchised farmers and producers, who have always been deprived of equal standards in their respective industries.

While Providence Farm Collective (PFC) is 20 miles south of Buffalo, many farm children attend BPS and have yet to taste a recipe in school unique to their culture – a reality that this initiative aims to correct.

“We are grateful that Buffalo Public Schools have committed to this project highlighting culturally relevant foods and the traditions of the families who regularly eat them, especially at a time when many immigrants and people of color are striving to be recognized as important and valuable. parts of American communities,” said Dennice Barr, member of the Buffalo Food Equity Network and advocate for the Fruit Belt community. “Our Food for the Spirit Buffalo Food Equity Network team is honored to have this opportunity to engage parents and other adult mentors in supporting positive youth development through local, culturally relevant dietary nutrition and a Farming Systems Education in Buffalo Public Schools.”

Celebrating cultural diversity with Buffalo Members of the Farm to School project team gather for a kick-off meeting at Providence Farm Collective. Photo credit: Rebekah Williams
(LR) Bridget O’Brien Wood (BPS Food Service Manager) and Mahamud Mberwa, spread chapati batter for Sharif Abdi (PFC Chef) to fry. Photo credit: CheRyl Bilinski

When asked during kick-off if anyone had ever tried this food, a young student said: “I know this menu because my mum makes githeri at home and I’m used to it. It is a surprise to know that my school lunch now features our own language and culture within the school.

To ensure that policy plans become measurable actions, BPS Food Service awarded additional priority points to BIPOC producers in their latest round of school feeding bids.

These values ​​include:

  • Local economies, with the most points awarded to Buffalo-based urban farms
  • Environmental sustainability, with points awarded to products from organic farming
  • Food safety, with points awarded to producers meeting the highest food safety standards
  • Women-owned businesses
  • Animal wellbeing

A total of $930,420 was awarded to New York Food and Agriculture Partners. A summary of the prices is as follows:

  • Providence Farm Collective ($4,765), the Initiative’s main agricultural partner, is a consortium of new American farmers, primarily from East Africa and Myanmar. They will provide the district with items never served in the BPS school lunch before: African corn, Asian eggplant, African eggplant, sweet potato leaves, roselle leaves, Swiss chard and cabbage.
  • Dish 12 Mushrooms ($7,000), an indoor mushroom farm on the west side of Buffalo.
  • Market garden ($8,900), a diverse urban farm on Buffalo’s east side that grows to organic standards and is co-owned by a woman.
  • Farm with 5 breads ($1,200), a diverse urban farm on Buffalo’s west side that grows to organic standards.
  • Eden Valley Growers/Western NY Food Hub ($342,454), a 60-year-old NY Grown & Certified vegetable cooperative in Eden that supports more than twenty multigenerational farms.
  • Bippert Farmer’s Market ($16,000), a certified business owned by a woman and 4and generational farm located in Elma.
  • Headwater Food Center ($54,986), a certified B-Corp that works collaboratively with a network of regional farmers and food producers to coordinate a “good food system” that provides sustainable food year-round.
  • by Wardynski ($264,515), a Buffalo family business since 1919, that custom produces NY Grown & Certified beef products that are free of nitrates, artificial ingredients and preservatives.
  • Food Slate ($189,700), a certified, woman-owned business that partners with a consortium of farms and processors in various parts of the state to supply schools with NY Grown & Certified beef, free of antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones .
  • Empire State Farms ($40,900), a New York powerhouse that supplies institutional markets with NY Grown & Certified beef products.

“I am proud that the district is launching this initiative with our community partners to provide more diverse and robust menu options to our Buffalo Public School students that reflect the many different cultures within our BPS family,” said declared Buffalo School Board President Lou Petrucci. “A meal that a student does not eat does not benefit the student or the district. This program will help both increase participation in our lunch program by providing selections our students are more familiar with and reduce food waste by providing healthy foods and menu choices that children want in addition to supporting the work of our local producers.

(LR) Sharif Abdi is working with Bridget O’Brien-Wood and Cheryl Bilinski (CCE Harvest NY Specialist) on standardizing the githeri recipe. The githeri was prepared with African maize grown in PFC soils from seeds imported from Tanzania. Photo credit: RJ Anderson

“Often children from the Somali Bantu community do not eat their school meals because the food is unfamiliar to them or it is not halal,” said Mahamud Mberwa, PFC Farm Mentor and Incubator Farmer. “They want to eat healthier, but they don’t see the healthy foods they eat at home in the cafeteria. For them, eating githeri or sambusa at school and knowing that they are eating food grown by their community would make them excited for school lunch.

In partnership with pilot schools, the project team will provide opportunities for youth engagement, adult leadership development and culturally appropriate recipe development.

“We look forward to developing culturally relevant recipes that our diverse population of students will enjoy at school! Training food service staff will be key to ensuring recipe integrity and customer satisfaction,” said Bridget O’Brien WoodBPS Food Service Director.

“Cornell Cooperative Extension is very grateful for our longstanding partnership with Buffalo Public Schools,” said Cheryl Bilinski, CCE HNY Specialist in local food systems. “It allows us to make positive change in areas critical to our mission: strengthening local economies, advancing diversity, equity and inclusion, empowering youth, and providing nutrition education.”


The Initiative – made possible through support from a USDA Farm-to-School Implementation Grant. Project co-leads include BPS Foodservice and Cornell Cooperative Extension Harvest New York (CCE HNY) – launched as a pilot in six of the district’s schools: Harriet Ross Tubman (#31), Lafayette High School (#207), International School (#45), International Preparatory (#198), Frederick Law Olmsted (#156) and Waterfront Elementary (#95).

Key project partners include Food for the Spirit, Urban fruits and vegetables, Buffalo Food Equity Network, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County, Youville University, Buffalo School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Managementand the Cornell Vegetable Program.

Main image: PFC Chef Sharif Abdi works with BPS Food Service staff to prepare peppers for use in githeri. Photo credit: Mahamud Mberwa