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What's on the school menu? Maybe fresh produce straight from the farm
Call it the lunch lady farm tour.
Just as the new school year kicks off, two dozen nutrition staff members from the Auburn, Renton and Kent school districts gathered at the Renton School District Nutrition Services office last Thursday and climbed aboard a big yellow school bus for an hour-long ride to visit Viva Farms in Mount Vernon.
It was a chance for those who prepare and serve food for thousands of school children to learn more about the growing Farm to School movement, which seeks to improve student nutrition, support small farms and help children learn more about agriculture.
Last Thursday's tour was funded through a Community Transformation Grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Seattle Children's hospital. It was part of a project to develop a South King County Farm to School Collaborative, said Shoko Kumagai, a Farm to School project coordinator for the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) who organized the tour.
"This is the second mobile Farm to School tour we've held this year. The goal is for nutrition staff members to learn ways to develop Farm to School programs in their own schools," Kumagai said. "They meet farmers, chefs, and school officials with successful programs of their own. It's all about sharing practical, usable knowledge and gaining ownership of their Farm to School programs."
Last June, the three districts used school meal funds to buy asparagus from a Sunnyside farm and radishes from Viva Farms.
Tara Hester, with the Renton School District, had her doubts about the asparagus.
"I wasn't sure they would like it raw," she said of the school children. "They loved it."
This past year, Renton schools have sought more ways to become involved in Farm to School efforts, said Heather Mann, field manager and dietitian in the Renton district nutrition services.
Harvest of the Month Program is one effort, where cafeteria staff members highlight a specific crop weekly for an entire month. This year, as the district's Farm to School program develops, they'll try to use local crops more, Mann said.
At Viva Farms, executive director Ethan Schaffer led the tour through fields of strawberries and raspberries. Last year was the first time the farm sold produce to schools, he said.
One reason was to promote good nutrition in institutional meals, but there are other reasons, too.
"One of our missions is to help new farmers succeed," Schaffer said. "It's essential to find new markets and schools are a great new market for farmers."
Later, at the nearby Washington State University test kitchen, Chef John Fisher, culinary arts instructor at Renton Technical College, demonstrated school lunch recipes using fresh, local produce like plums and cabbages for September and October Harvest of the Month features.
While staff members prepared the ingredients, Fisher provided tips on flavor and food presentation.
Deftly rolling the ingredients into a wrap, he cut one in half for high schoolers, but "for grade school kids, I do something like this," he said, slicing one wrap into four, smaller pieces.
The tour members made wraps for themselves, then discussed ways to incorporate fresh produce into their own cafeterias.
For schools trying out Farm to School, baby steps are the way to go, Kumagai said.
Taste Washington Day on Sept. 25 or National Farm to School Month in October are good times to highlight fresh, local products and plan events to connect kids with where the food comes from.
"WSDA can help with resources or by connecting schools to local farmers in their area," Kumagai said.
Carol Barker, child nutrition director for the Auburn School District, said her district has a long history of providing fresh produce and locally sourced foods for its meals.
The tour, she said, gave nutrition staff members a chance to see where some of the food comes from, get ideas for preparing fresh produce in an appealing way and learn the purpose behind Farm to School programs.
"If they're excited about it, it's going to come across in how they present it and how they sell it to the kids," Barker said. "Kids don't always want to try new things, but if you talk it up, that can make the difference."
For more info:
Visit www.farmtoschoolmonth.org for information or tips on participating in National Farm to School Month in October.
Community Transformation Grants: kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/partnerships