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Watertown City School to bring farm produce to cafeterias

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In an effort to reap the fruits of local soil for student meals, officials of the Watertown City School District hope to reintroduce the farm-to-school grant program.

Craig P. Orvis, Watertown City School District food service director, said the grassroots campaign is a joint effort between him and Lara T. Abreu, a parent of two students in the district.

Mrs. Abreu is a stay-at-home mom who became inspired to work with the district to bring healthier food to the table when her children started attending Sherman Elementary School. As an agricultural county where farming revenues top all others, Mrs. Abreu said its an ideal place for farm-to-school.

“I have been interested in the food industry, organic farming and nutrition for a few years, especially since my kids commenced their educational journey,” Mrs. Abreu said. “I decided to get involved in farm-to-school as farm-to-table is a hot topic right now nationally, and after moving here and seeing how many farms there are, I thought it would be a great fit.”

Mr. Orvis said that together, with Mrs. Abreu organizing while he works on the food service side, they hope to utilize the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Grant Program, which helps eligible schools to bring in produce from local farms for school meals.

The USDA annually awards up to $5 million in competitive grants for training, supporting operations, planning, purchasing equipment, establishing school gardens, developing partnerships and implementing farm-to-school programs.

The state farm-to-school legislation was introduced to schools in 2002. The legislation charges the state Education Department and Department of Agriculture & Markets with working together to facilitate the purchase of New York farm products by schools, universities and other educational institutions.

“We need to get a committee behind us to start this program. Our first step is to get a planning grant to help us incorporate the program into the curriculum,” Mrs. Abreu said. “We can go on from there to apply for implementation grants to help us further develop the plan and finally get the support service grant.”

Mrs. Abreu said she hopes the committee can be ready to apply for the initial planning grant by the April deadline.

In a presentation to the board of education, Mrs. Abreu outlined project goals including purchasing locally grown produce for the district, which currently uses none.

Other goals include increasing fresh fruit and vegetable consumption in elementary schools, increasing food and nutrition education, completing a wellness assessment and expanding the district’s central kitchen capabilities, through external funding, to include processing and cooking on site.

Another aim is to join the Alliance for Healthier Generation, a program founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation, which works to reduce obesity and to encourage children to develop healthy habits.

The district attempted to introduce a smaller farm-to-school program during the 2008 summer school session, but the new effort aims to establish a districtwide program.

“When we were in summer session, we had a lot less students and we were bringing in produce straight from the farms,” Mr. Orvis said. “Meals for our elementary schools are prepped at the high school kitchen. It’ll be a challenge to go from serving pre-prepped fruits and vegetables to taking the time to do it for so many students in different schools.”

In 2008, several districts, including Carthage, Sackets Harbor and South Jefferson, joined Watertown in adopting farm-to-school programs. Since then, only South Jefferson has kept its program.

At Carthage and Sackets Harbor schools, the program faltered after funding dried up.

“There have been a lot of changes in regulations for how schools design meals,” said Sackets Harbor cafeteria manager Todd C. Marshall. “With the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act there have been a lot of things to get used to.”

Kim Munn, secretary to Carthage Central’s food manager, said that although the district tries to bring in fresh produce during peak season, it no longer follows the program.

South Jefferson Central cafeteria manager Cynthia A. Overton said the program initially was hard to get used to, but with time and planning it has remained intact.

She said she understands the struggles of putting the system in place but feels it’s all around a “totally awesome program.”

“I can’t always have only local products,” Ms. Overton said. She balances what local farmers can provide with what she can get from Maines Paper & Food Service. “We try to get as much as we can locally.”

For example, Ms. Overton brings in local honey, eggs, zucchini, squash, carrots, potatoes and more.

“I get my potatoes and some of my carrots from Lucy Kurtz of Kurtz Farm in Adams, and other things from Delta Keeney out of the Watertown area, eggs from Darcy Graves of Graves family farm and so much more,” Ms. Overton said. “We get peas, carrots and onions locally.”

For the program to be successful at Watertown schools, Mr. Orvis said, the grant money could be used to offset the cost for added prep time or even adding prep kitchens to the elementary schools.

“To start a farm-to-school program, we have a two-part approach with food service and educational opportunities for the students,” Mr. Orvis said.

According to Mrs. Abreu, the initiative would be healthier not only for her own children but for other children who receive their most substantial meals at the schools.

“When I moved here from Pennsylvania, I couldn’t believe the number of farms in Watertown and I thought farm-to-school would be great here,” she said.

Mrs. Abreu said the program is an opportunity to encourage healthier choices and show children where food comes from. She said this could be achieved by introducing a school garden or taking field trips to local farms.

“We need to start teaching children healthy eating habits at a young age. If we could get them out in the garden to pick a carrot, then serve it for their snack time, it would be a lot more fun for them than a lesson in the classroom,” Mrs. Abreu said.

When foods are put on the school menu from a neighboring farm, Ms. Overton said, she tries to put out a sign to say which farm they came from.

“It can inspire a sense of pride when the kids read where their carrots came from and they realize my aunt, my neighbor or my friend grew this,” she said.

She said her best advice for schools thinking about starting a new farm-to-school program would be to start out working with one farmer for a year to get used to the process of intake and initial processing of their product.

“Invite the farmers into your kitchen, get everyone on the same communication wave, and it will be so much easier to expand to bringing in produce from more farms,” Ms. Overton said.

When South Jefferson initially introduced its farm-to-school nutrition program, prepping the local produce took about 25 percent more time than prepackaged foods.

“It does take a little extra time, but it’s all in how I manage our schedule through the week,” Ms. Overton said. “If I know we’re getting a fresh supply of mescaline or spring mix vegetables, I’ll set aside enough time for us to prep that.”

Another initial challenge she encountered was coordinating with the local farmers.

“I certainly didn’t want to bring in a crate of vegetables and have dirt still caked over the potatoes. It’s all about communicating with the producers and making sure everyone is on the same page to make this program work for everyone,” Ms. Overton said.

“We’re just at the beginning stage. We need to work with local farmers and get the community involved in the process and I think we can find a way to make this happen here,” Mr. Orvis said.

For more information about the farm-to-school grant program, visit the USDA website at usda.gov.

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