Heading back to school this fall, kids are donning new shoes or book bags, teachers are working long days, and the child nutrition staff in Western North Carolina (WNC) are serving up local produce. While the school year does not neatly fit with the growing season in our region, August through October is a great time for schools to take advantage of the harvest. Fresh tomatoes, peppers, yellow squash, zucchini, melon, and even corn on the cob are making its way into cafeterias this year. While it is often difficult for schools to work with multiple farmers, local produce distributors can help make sure Appalachian Grown™ products are still available to schools throughout the region.
“This time of year we can offer a large volume of Appalachian Grown products to all the schools we work with” says Marion Kirby, owner of Marvin’s Produce in Taylors, SC. In addition to distributing produce to schools throughout upstate South Carolina and WNC, Marvin’s also processes foods that are typically too labor intensive for schools to handle. This year Burke County Public Schools welcomed kids back to school with Appalachian Grown corn on the cob and summer squash. Thanks to Marvin’s abilities to process the corn, it arrived in school kitchens shucked and cut to fit the serving size needed for school meals. This school year Burke County schools are working to feature two local products a month in their elementary school cafeterias, as well as connect kids to local food and farms through monthly taste tests and classroom activities. These components are all part of a farm to school project ASAP is heading up in Burke County through 2018.
“The goal is to offer multiple points of connection for students” says Emily Jackson, ASAP’s Growing Minds Program Director. As part of the project, five elementary schools in Burke County receive monthly taste tests in their cafeteria highlighting local products, as well as teacher training and resources to implement farm to school in the classroom. Simultaneously, ASAP is working with Chartwells, the school system’s food distributor, to both source more local product and highlight what is local for children and their families.
“Often there will be local product served in the cafeteria, but somewhere between the farm, distributor, and the lunch line, it loses it’s local identity. At that point it also loses the connection and story behind where the food comes from,” explains Molly Nicholie, ASAP’s Local Food Campaign Program Director, working with schools on procurement. To try to maintain those connections between the cafeteria, classroom and community, ASAP is working with schools to not only source local product, but also identify local products on their menus and on the serving line. This, in combination with drawing on connections with curriculum and sending kids home with recipe cards after they try local products in monthly taste tests, will hopefully build positive associations with fresh local food and encourage children to eat more of it.
Changing school food and rebuilding connections is not an easy task. While projects like this are small incremental change, we need to support schools and educators where they are, in order to expand farm to school to all communities.