Last stop: Ekolapiko - organic food, happy kids and famous singing clowns!

So I spent my last day at Biolur and the project  Ekolapiko - set up to introduce organic food and healthy eating into schools. Sabrina & Iosune chatted to me about the project's challenges and successes - including famous Basque clowns releasing a song about it! (how great is that?!).

With organic agriculture we want to guarantee the health of our children and at the same time emphasise the importance of agriculture in itself, says the website and the project does seem to have an good balance regarding the resources used to support the schools to make changes to their menus/purchasing habits, and the farmers to look at what they need to do to be able to supply the schools. So it was a good project to visit and learn from.

Sabrina is a chef by trade, she started working in restaurants and was so shocked by the quality of the food that people were being given to eat (and children in schools), that she re-trained as a nutritionist.

The project that Sabrina and Iosune work for started in 2007 with three nurseries. The council of San Sebastian wanted to make the food in nurseries organic so they asked Biolur to help and a foundation.

They started with fruit and vegetables because they were locally produced and fresh, and were therefore the easiest foods to introduce.

They started by introducing organic food into the nurseries without changing the menu.

One of the three cooks loved the project the other two weren't happy due to the extra work (the veg arriving with earth on them and snails).

After the first year they started to change the menu as they found that the cooks were asking for the same veg and fruit all year round (and not seasonal), so they needed to support them by making the menu more seasonal.

Sabrina (who is a chef and nutritionist by trade) went to the school and worked with the chef initially for five days (from 9 – 3) and then for another 3 at a later date – seeing what they cooked, how it all worked and what days the veg arrived on etc. - working with the chef to develop the new menu.

As the children in the nurseries are very young, the menu consists mainly of purees (thick soups). So they managed to develop a menu that consisted of a different puree every day (different colour, texture, taste) over 2 weeks. The children loved it!

They introduced the changes to the menu slowly – so one week they would change the first day, another week the second day, so that it wasn't too much of a change and shock all at once (for anyone – the children, the cooks, the parents). It took 4 months in total to change the menu completely.

The dinner monitors were a bit less enthusiastic (than the chef) about the changes initially, and took a bit more convincing about the project. Sabrina did a presentation about the project, but also (and more importantly she feels) talked to them informally over lunch. For the 5 days she was at the school she ate with the dinner monitors, answering their questions and chatting to them about the benefits of organic food for the children. She feels that it was key to take advantage of this time.

The time spent at each nursery or school depended on how much support the chefs needed. Some needed more support with technical cooking advice where as others were happy just to be given the recipe and get on with it themselves.

The chefs can also ring Sabrina at any time to ask for help with a recipe

The cooks are super clave – you have to have them on board. So to an extent it has to be up to them how much they change the menu and how much they want to work with you.

So it was going really well, and then the government changed the law saying that all the state run schools had to use an outside catering, and taking out their kitchens (including the nusery that was really into the project).

This means that the only schools and nuseries that they can work with are private schools and co-operatively run schools (where the parents have taken over the management of the schools including the food) – of which there are 40 in the Basque Country. And schools who are insumiso (defy the law and take it into their own hands) - there is one example of this 'Larrabetzu'. ENHE supported support the farmers with the planning for this school and the co-ordination (I should look at it). There should be more examples of this, your children's food is really important.

So the project now has 4 nurseries and 1 primary and 1 nursery that is doing a trial.

Cost of the organic menu
When they first changed to organic fruit and veg the price did go up by 0.29 cents a day (90 euros a month). The school get to do a trial of 2 months in which time the extra cost is funded by the bank, but after that trial time they have to decide if they will take that extra cost on themselves.

However compared with the private caterers (non organic menu), Biolur's organic menu is much better value. Biolur can provide a meal for 5 euros a day compared to the outside caterers charge of 11 euros a day.

Logisitics

Each producer takes their produce to a distributor. This distributor was started by a co-op of 4 organic producers. Anything they can't buy from the local producers they source organically from further afield (rice, pasta etc. - everything on the ekolapiko menu is organic except meat.

Prices paid to the producers are currently based on market prices (most people wouldn't pay higher than that while there is such cheap food available). Producers who grow the same crops charge the same for products as it is all based on market prices. The distributor adds about 5% on to the price to the producer for their role.

The state schools pay every three months, which is really difficult for the producers – the schools managed by the parents pay every month so that is workable.

There is no crop co-ordination between the growers. Basically everyone grows what they can in each season and then what they can't sell to the schools they sell at local markets (which are still very strong here in the Basque Country).

Commitments
The producers have to be certified and have to produce what they say they will.
The schools have to commit to buy from that distributor (they can't buy it somewhere else if it's cheaper) – there's no contract but it is an agreement that they all stick to.

Finances
The major part of the funding for Ekolapiko comes from the Cristina Enea Foundation, dedicated to environmental awareness raising. The Local Authority of San Sebastian and the organic food regulatory body gives another small part. In addition there is a bank that provides financial aid to fund the cost involved in carrying the project forward.


Obstacles
They face various obstacles (it's a lot of work we're letting ourselves in for!):

The pediatricians make recommendations about what the children should eat that don't take into account seasonality or organic at all. So it makes it more of a challenge trying to explain to the parents that the children can't eat squash all year round (the pediatritians are recommending squash as a great food for children), or saying that they should eat nuts (as they are full of nutrition locally produced and cheap) if the pediatritians are saying children shouldn't eat nuts until they are 5 or 6 years old.

The change in the law to get rid of the kitchens and employ outside caterers.

The process of getting schools on board and supporting them to change their menus and change to organic (fruit, veg, milk and organic wholemeal bread) is a long one – it will be hard to achieve the target set by the funders of 10 more schools on board (especially as they lost some when the law was changed).

The small number of organic fruit and vegetable producers locally. The mountainous landscape makes large scale production very difficult – so the producers are small. They only produce 5% of what they consume locally (in the Basque Country).

The number of schools changing to organic has to happen at a pace that matches the increase in the number of organic producers that they get on board locally.


Work with the parents:
talks about rural development
talks about the benefits of organic food (although only about 25% of the parents come to these – and they are generally already convinced)
cooking classes – lots more parents come to these
visits to the farms with the children and the parents – they love these trips – they organise an activity during the visit too (with the parents and the children).
They produce a quarterly newsletter with information about everything that is going on with the project, what fruit and veg is in season and a seasonal recipe.


Working with the children to introduce the changes.
One example of this that they are working on at the moment is bread making. The children at one of the schools between the age of 6 and 12 go to a baker (in groups of 20) and help make organic wholemeal bread. Once all of the children of this age have been they will change the bread on the menu to organic wholemeal.

The children are used to white bread and there would be a bread riot if they just changed it over night, but by involving the children in making the bread they think this will make them excited about the change. Once the children have all participated in the workshop they want the parents to do it.

All of these workshops (with the children and parents) are funded by Biolur/the project, so they are free to the parents. This is great, though it can in some cases have the impact of making parents feel that it isn't worth going to as it's free (won't be of a high standard), frustratingly.

Supporting the chefs
They ran a round table with the chefs involved in the project, a day when they all came together and talked about problems and solutions, and swapped ideas and recipes, talked about how they cooked certain dishes and gave each other advice.

This informal and peer learning was definitely the best approach with the chefs – it was more accessible to them and respects that they already have a lot of knowledge between them.

Future
The challenge for this year is to bring together each school with their most local producer (or 2), to see whether it can work and whether each producer can meet most of the needs of a school.

Work with the pediatricians (Sabrina was given a contact for one who is supportive of organic seasonal food while I was there – so it is possible!).

They are starting to work more directly with the consumers. So bringing the most local producer together with a school – to try and achieve a fairer price both for the producer and the consumer, and reduce the negative environmental impact, and also so that the parents and children can have a more personal relationship with the producer. The schools will pay the producers directly when this happens (currently through the distributor).

This needs to be well planned though. It is an important job for a producer taking on supplying a school – they need to be able to respond to the needs of the school and be consistent. The producers need support in planning having a constant quantity of the vegetables available over the months (and trying to reduce the hungry gap where they have to buy in from further afield via the distributor). So the one school would need other producers on stand-by for it they can't fulfil the order – a network of support.

Structure of the project
Biolur, the bank, the local government, the foundation, the certification body and the distributor.
All the partners meet up twice a year.

The project workers meet up once a month (although they also work together on a day to day basis).

A big success for them has been to work with some clowns who are really famous in the Basque Country (every parent has a sticker of them in their car). They are great and were really happy to get involved – they made a song about why organic food is great and a video, which they are about to release publicly, so this should really help to get children talking about it.

Look up www.ekolapiko.net

 

The video looks brilliant - though it's in Basque so I have no idea what they are saying, something about how great organic food is though! Apparently every parent in the Basque country has a sticker with these clowns on it on the back window of their car - so it's a massive coup getting them involved - well done you lot! Keep up the hard work, and thanks so much for squeezing me in it was really good to meet you.

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