“I would assume the reason I won is that we at Omaha Public Schools are big proponents of purchasing and using local products on our menus. We are really active in promoting what Nebraska has to offer,” said Tammy Yarmon, Director of Nutrition Services for OPS, upon finding out she had been nominated for and then chosen to be Food Day Champion this year.
To win the award, Yarmon first had to be nominated for her exceptional work with food. Food Day, presented by the Omaha Farmers Market and the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, centers on a vision of food that is healthy, affordable and produced with care for the environment, farm animals and the people who grow, harvest and serve it.
Yarmon has several food initiatives in place throughout the OPS school system. One major program she recently instituted is called Nebraska Thursdays.
“We have always purchased and used local produce, but this year we decided to take the first Thursday of every month to promote local food and let our parents and families know that, as much as we can, we are using Nebraska items,” explained Yarmon. "For example, we use Rotella’s bakery for bread, which is baked here in Omaha. The potatoes and sweet corn that have been used on past menus were all from local producers." She said they use Smart Chicken from Tecumseh, which is antibiotic-free chicken.
Yarmon and her staff send posters to the schools and email principals in advance of Nebraska Thursdays.
The program has caught the eye of the Department of Education. Yarmon said she met with them recently and they are going to work with the Center for Rural Affairs to make Nebraska Thursdays a statewide program. Yarmon is proud of this accomplishment.
Through her role at OPS, Yarmon has also worked with Hiland Dairy to clean up their label.
“They did this by getting rid of artificial colorings and flavorings. That just happened in October and not only affects Omaha Public Schools, but also impacts all their customers throughout the state who receive their strawberry and chocolate milk,” she said.
As Director of Nutrition Services, Yarmon oversees the whole program for all schools in the district, including breakfasts, lunches, snacks, suppers and the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program (FFVP).
The FFVP is a USDA grant program. Schools who qualify can apply to receive a certain number of dollars. Then they create a plan to serve fruit or vegetables outside of their regular meal programs to all their students twice a week.
“We started this years ago to see if would make a difference to our children. As part of the program, each school is required to offer an educational component. It could be talking to students through the PA system about the importance or benefits of apples or providing watermelons to field and track athletes and talking to them about the importance of hydration,” said Yarmon.
She said a number of schools participate in that program.
Yarmon said she enjoys being able to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to kids through the program. Many are fruits and vegetables they would never normally see. Plus, the snack gives them a little something extra in the afternoon to help boost their energy and get them through the rest of their day.
OPS is also part of School Food Focus, a national organization that works by using a collaboration of school districts to make changes with manufacturers through their collective purchasing power.
Consequently, companies like Jennie-O and Tyson now raise chickens and turkeys with the certified responsible use of antibiotics.
Additionally, Yarmon said OPS belongs to the Midwest Regional Learning Lab, a group of Midwest districts that work together on things like Food Day.
“This year, because the Food Day national organization didn’t have the funding to continue the program in the schools, a group of Midwest school districts, from Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Chicago and Detroit, all got together and did a Midwest Menu Day, where we all served food on the same day. This year’s menu was chicken drums, potatoes and some kind of apple,” she explained.
Yarmon said the school district has been into local purchasing for probably six or seven years and works hard to bring the Farm to School Movement to the forefront. Recent activities have included Apple Crunch Day, which occurred in some of the schools. At a specific time on a particular day, students all crunched into apples at the same time.
She said activities like that bring the movement to the forefront.
“When we have local products, we always try to tell our families where our products are coming from. During local Food Day, we have it on our website. We designate local products with a farmer icon on our menu. And at the beginning of the school year, we emphasize products we are using and where they are coming from,” said Yarmon.
And there are even more plans for the school’s menus coming up. Yarmon said they plan to celebrate Nebraska’s 150th birthday next March with a special meal.
She knows it will be difficult to find and use local produce in the winter, but said she will just do the best she can. Yarmon said they will still have local bread, tortillas and chicken they can use.
Of her job, Yarmon said “I love what I do for kids. That’s the reason we are all here is our kids. I love the staff in the schools doing the work and our office staff who provide support for our schools.”
She said she enjoys using local produce and putting money back into the economy and on a much larger scale, she is happiest buying products made in the USA.
“There are certain times of the year I know I have to buy outside of the state but when I can, as much as possible, I use local food,” she said.
Yarmon enjoys working with different community organizations like the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition and Hunger Free Heartland. She said it is an honor to work with people who are passionate about kids and who want to do the right thing.
According to Yarmon, winning the honor felt great. She said it was nice to know that she was part of this group of people all nominated by others.
“I don’t feel I was better than anyone else. Everyone who was in that group is an advocate and passionate about what they do. I felt honored that I was the one chosen to be Food Day Champion this year. I certainly didn’t expect it,” she said.
Yarmon is a big advocate for keeping funding in Nebraska. She would rather the money they spend on produce and other food go to local businesses and people.
“We try to keep the money rolling in our state. Plus, when you take a look at produce, it doesn’t have to travel as far. It’s important we spend the money here instead of someplace else. We have people here at OPS who are passionate about what they do. And what we here at OPS can do to help people with our passion is just outstanding,” she said.