In June, a handful of representatives from various schools, farms and other organizations gathered at the Athenaeum Hotel in the Chautauqua Institution to discuss the plausibility of a new idea: incorporating locally grown produce into high school cafeteria lunches.
Often parodied in television sitcoms and movies, high school lunches do not have an outstanding reputation for quality and nutrition. The average Chautauqua County high-school cafeteria might need to serve an average of 300-500 kids every day, often times meals were prepared based on economy rather than nutrition.
While high school lunches have always needed to meet certain criteria established by the USDA, parents have heard horror stories about nutrition loopholes caused by ambiguous criteria, such as ketchup counting as a serving of vegetables, or a slice of pizza counting as a vegetable because of the tomato sauce.
Terry Brown, Pine Valley Central School cafeteria manager, discusses how she has implemented apples into school lunches.
P-J photos by Remington Whitcomb
An exhibit created by Sherman Central School educating its students about grapes and where they are grown locally.
A radish grows in a school garden at Sherman Central School.
And although there are no such high-school cafeterias in Chautauqua County, there have been occasions where schools in large cities have outsourced their cafeterias to fast-food restaurants such as Burger King and Taco Bell. Foods served by such restaurants are often high in fat and calories and low in vitamins and minerals. While eating meals from fast-food restaurants on occasion can fit into a dietary budget, eating such meals every day would be considered detrimental to overall health by most doctors.
However, as child obesity and diabetes becomes a larger issue, more and more schools have taken steps to keep the diseases at bay, including a large number of schools in Chautauqua County.
Now that the summer is waning and a new school year is starting for high-schoolers across the county, schools are looking to pick up where they left off last spring with regard to integrating locally grown produce into cafeteria lunches. More specifically, schools are looking to incorporate fresh and nutritious produce more so than they've ever done before.
MEETING AT THE ATHENAEUM
Much like what is protocol for most new ideas, the schools that decided to give farm to school a try last school year did their best to ease into it rather than dive in head first.
Many schools made an attempt to incorporate farm to school into practice by focusing on a single product, such as apples for Pine Valley Central School, grapes for Sherman Central School and salad for Westfield Academy and Central School. These schools did their best to incorporate their respective products into their curriculum as well, to teach the value of eating fresher, locally grown produce instead of processed foods.
"Each farm to school program is very different," said Breeanne Agett, representative from the Chautauqua County Health Department. "It's based on the community you live in ... it's a national movement and everywhere across the country there are programs like this going on and the USDA fully supports them."
According to Agett, farm to school is broadly defined as a program that connects schools and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in schools' cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities and supporting local and regional farmers and farms.
"If you're getting food locally from your farmers, that food didn't need to travel across the country, so it helps to reduce our carbon footprint," said Agett. "It's environmentally friendly and it also increases sales for local farmers, which helps our local economy."
WESTFIELD TRIES SALAD
The first school to speak at the gathering at the Athenaeum was Westfield. Christina Marsh, operations manager for the Brick Walk Cafe, represented the school.
Marsh spoke about Westfield's decision to abolish sugary snacks from the lunchroom and install a salad bar instead.
"The power of the salad bar - increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables by children - encourages children to try new items," said Marsh. "Increased fruit-and-vegetable intake is linked to improved classroom behavior. Children learn to make decisions that carry over outside of school, providing for a lifetime of healthy snack and meal choices. Research has shown us that actual experience in schools across the country demonstrate that school children can increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables when given these choices on the salad bar. When offered multiple fruit and vegetable choices, children responded by trying new items. It helps to incorporate a greater variety of fruits and vegetables into their diet, and it increases their daily consumption of fruits and vegetables."
PINE VALLEY PROMOTES APPLES
Pete Morgante, Pine Valley superintendent and Terry Brown, cafeteria manager spoke next about the fun ways Pine Valley intended to incorporate apples into their lunches.
"When I thought about apples, I thought of Johnny Appleseed," said Morgante. "I thought to myself, 'we've got to tie this into literature.' So what we did was develop a program around apples and Johnny Appleseed. We purchased books for all the kids (about Appleseed) and the classrooms read them."
"So far we've gone through 155 bushels of apples," said Brown. "I had a hard time figuring out what the difference was because we've always purchased apples before - the children just simply weren't taking them. I think part of it is the pride of the apples being locally grown."
SHERMAN GOES GRAPES
Representing Sherman, Deanie Thorsell, school nurse, spoke about why she was so excited about farm to school.
"I can't tell you how excited I am to be here," said Thorsell. "Farm to school is something that has been a personal passion of mine for a long time. I've been watching the Internet and looking at all the things that were out there and I thought to myself, 'this is a community that could really benefit from this type of a program.' I found out eventually that there were other schools in the area that were practicing it and I'm glad we're finally communicating with the people that we need to. To be in the same room with all the farmers and the other schools ... I'm really excited that we're all here."
Thorsell explained all the ways Sherman incorporated grapes into their curriculum, much like how Pine Valley incorporated apples.
"We tried to find a way we could talk about grapes in every class," said Thorsell. "Our math teachers came up with 'the grapes of math' and we showed in our science classes that we have something that looks like grapes in our lungs."
Additionally, Sherman Central School created a video about how eating healthier food and eating local food can go hand in hand. The video promoted being a "locavore."
A NEW YEAR OF FARM TO SCHOOL
Morgante was happy to announce that Pine Valley plans go beyond apples for the 2012-13 school year and provide a greater array of local fruits and vegetables for students as part of the farm to school program.
"Breeanne Agett secured a grant for all the districts in Chautauqua County to become involved in farm to school this year," said Morgante. "We're going to continue buying produce from local farms and this year we're going to expand it. With regards to incorporating it into our curriculum, we're going to continue to use nonfiction books. This year, however, we're going to start classroom gardens."
Morgante said that the grant afforded Pine Valley the opportunity to purchase hydroponic systems so in-class gardens can become a possibility.
"The goal is to have a classroom garden in every room," said Morgante. "We're going to try to address a new science curriculum that way. The goal is that our (Future Farmers of America) would help us out with that. ... We have an excellent FFA following. It reaches kids that don't play sports and gives kids that don't do other extracurricular activities something to do. They have regular meetings where they learn the rules of parliamentary procedure and they run their own meetings. It's probably our most active club and it certainly helps us further our farm to school program."
According to Morgante, Pine Valley, which graduates 50 to 60 students a year, say that almost the entire student population is very excited about the farm to school program.
"It's really neat to see that, as you go through the lunch line, there are fruits and vegetables available there and the kids are actually eating them. One of our staff members pointed out that we do a lot of neat things at Pine Valley, but none of it would mean anything without the outstanding participant we get from our students."
Much like Pine Valley, Thorsell was excited to talk about how Sherman plans on expanding their farm to school program this school year.
"In October we will be having a wellness week and the wellness week will be completely focused on farm foods," said Thorsell. "It will end with a fall harvest dinner which will be open to the entire community. We'll focus on the farm to school concept and eating healthy."
And much like Pine Valley's apples, Sherman will go beyond grapes this year.
"The grapes served as an introduction for the students," said Thorsell. "It gave them an example of something that was grown locally, however this year we'll be branching out. This year we'll be working with local foods and we'll focus on potatoes, onions, garlic, squash and carrots. This way, students will learn difference recipes with those items and it will give them a chance to explore with foods their familiar with. The overall idea is that we want to have a healthy student body."