THE FARM TO SCHOOL CONCEPT centers on the notion that feeding local, farm-fresh foods to our school children is superior to giving them foods that aren’t local, are probably processed and not fresh, and came from who-knows-where after being raised by (probably corporate) farmers and processed by related corporate entities.
It’s a nice ideal. In reality, it’s difficult (and currently impossible) to fully achieve. Practical food-service pros like Paul Ventura from Greenville Central and Pam Strompf from Taconic Hills marry the two to reap the benefits of both. Under the aegis of the Healthcare Consortium’s Kids in Motion program, Ventura and Strompf recently met with other Taconic Hills food-service staff to share tips for making the most of resources while aiming for the farm-to-school goal.
Here’s the skinny on commodity foods: Through the National School Lunch Program, schools get reimbursed for the meals they serve based on the numbers of students eligible for fully or partially reimbursable meals. In addition, schools can order from the government, without cost, commodity foods — primarily items that the government bought as surplus. “Commodity foods” is a term that strikes fear in the hearts of many a mom hyperventilating over what her darling Ashley or Anton might find in the school lunch line. But the fear is over-hyped and the reality not so black and white.
Lots of commodity foods are highly nutritious and only minimally processed, like blueberries, dried cherries, dried beans or turkey breasts. And a savvy and enterprising chef will make the most of commodity foods so that hungry students can enjoy nutritious delicacies like sun-dried tomatoes (from fresh), smoked turkey (from fresh), or fancy capicola (from ham).
For only the cost of the labor, then, specialty foods appear on the cafeteria line. That leaves more funds for the local foods that our neighbors grow. And that opens up an opportunity for teachers and food-service staff to plant a seed of interest in a child’s mind about where the food came from, who raised it and why it’s better for them.
One way Mr. Ventura does this at Greenville is to feature his beloved “Weird and Wacky World of Strange Fruits and Vegetables.” Dishes like winter-squash cookies, blue potato chowder, and roasted beets filled with goat cheese invite brazen forays into foreign gustatory experiences. Less-weird offerings include curried roast carrots, marinated roasted eggplant, and balsamic roasted peppers and tomatoes.
A surefire way to foster appreciation for otherwise “suspicious” vegetables is to engage students before asking them to lift fork to mouth. Meal planning and preparation, to say nothing of raising and harvesting the foods therein, opens young eyes. Mr. Ventura introduces a few students each semester to working the “back story” that is his cafeteria. He finds that a student who isn’t thriving within the usual academic environment opens up in such a hands-on situation. The student must earn the staff’s respect before graduating beyond grunt work. But when a student finds a niche that feels right, it’s a win-win. Many of Mr. Ventura’s students blossom further in Questar III’s Culinary Arts program.
Members of our schools’ food-service staffs double as instructors who, as chef Ventura says, “teach students to eat well.” They can do that only if they’re creative with available resources, and so they’ll wisely make the most of what they can get for free. Then they can find funds for and develop the logistics to buy local farmers’ food, while they use food as an entrée to nurturing life-long interests among students.
The Kids in Motion Farm to School program works to improve schoolchildren’s health and well-being by fostering awareness of and engagement with agriculture. For more information, go to kidsinmotiononline.org or call us at 518 822-8820, ext. 317.