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Whatcom Farm-to-School: Focus on fresh food preparation

Jan 8th, 2013 | Category: Community, Food

New partnership with ACME Foodworks allows use of community kitchen

by Jessica Harbert

The Whatcom Farm-to-School organization has teamed up with ACME Foodworks to provide locally grown produce to be served in Whatcom County schools.

Whatcom Farm-to-School started in 2009 to connect local farms and schools to offer children locally grown options in the school cafeteria, as well as educating children on healthy food options and supporting local agriculture.

Preparing carrots from Hopewell Farm for November’s Harvest of the Month meal. COURTESY PHOTOS

ACME Foodworks, a new center being constructed by the folks behind Acme Farms + Kitchen, will feature a Community Supported Kitchen available for community members to rent and use for their own products. (A grand opening, family-friendly party for ACME Foodworks will be held Saturday, Jan. 26, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. at 1313 N. State St. Tickets are $25 each.) The kitchen will be utilized by Whatcom Farm-to-School, especially for its Whatcom Harvest of the Month program. The Harvest of the Month, now in its second year, features one local vegetable or fruit used once a month in a school lunch (see the sidebar at right for the 2012-13 school year).

Whatcom Farm-to-School works with the eight districts in the county, including Bellingham, Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Meridian, Mount Baker, Nooksack Valley, and Lummi Nation. The Food Service Directors within the districts decide if the schools would like to receive local food from the Whatcom Farm-to-School organization.

“The Food Service Directors are very good shoppers when it comes to seeing the deal and planning out how to use commodity dollars and various pots of money they get,” Solomon said. “We are also trying to figure out what we can offer that they will buy and be able to use in school meals.”

In the Bellingham School District alone in November, nearly 5,000 meals were served on Harvest of the Month day (the last Thursday of the month), Solomon said, to give a perspective of the amount of food preparation necessary.

“The main push to use Harvest of the Month is to develop systems for getting locally grown food into schools and to see if that is doable,” Solomon said.

November was carrot month for the Harvest of the Month, with 500 pounds of carrots from Hopewell Farms processed and served in local schools. The volunteer program helped save nearly $700 in labor, making the project feasible, Solomon said, and worked in the Acme Farms + Kitchen space using an industrial-strength food processor on loan from Growing Washington.

A typical lunch budget for a Whatcom County school is $1.05 per meal. Labor is primarily the largest expense for school food service, with more than 50 percent of the cost of school lunches spent on staff time, Solomon said.

“The schools keep needing to cut and cut back staff time, which is why so much of the food that goes in and out (of cafeterias) is ready to serve,” Solomon said. “Fresh produce takes more time. We are trying to help minimize staff time.”

The volunteer processing each month is dependent on what the item is and if it needs preparation to be served. Mardi Solomon, Coordinator for the Whatcom Farm-to-School Support Team said the next processing day could potentially be in March for kale month. The organization also processes food for some school events.

Volunteers help take the local produce from the farm and make it ready to serve at the schools, processing the vegetables and fruit by chopping and often freezing to save on labor costs and giving the schools access to fresh local food.

The volunteers are recruited mostly through the Whatcom Farm-to-School Champion Network, a group of volunteers who work at schools in the county for the Harvest of the Month program, and also the Whatcom Volunteer Center and schools within Whatcom County. (Volunteers are required to have a valid food handler’s permit.)

Whatcom Farm-to-School is tracking all the numbers and trying to determine how much labor is actually involved in processing local food for the schools, Solomon said.

“We have recognized there are all these kids who could be eating local food and aren’t getting it,” Solomon said. “Whatcom Farm-to-School is trying to meet two needs—a healthy diet for children and sustainable agriculture in Whatcom county.”

A project on the horizon for Whatcom Farm-to-School is working on a system for schools to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables during the peak summer growing season when school is not in session and process the food, by chopping and freezing it, so the local food can be used throughout the school year even when it is not in season.

Whatcom Farm-to-School is supported by the Whatcom Community Foundation and grants awarded by the Sustainable Whatcom Fund Advisory Committee.

For more information, or to become involved, visit www.whatcomfarmtoschool.org.

Harvest of the Month meals

September: Cherry Tomatoes

October: Broccoli, Cauliflower

November: Carrots

December: Apples

January: Potatoes

February: Frozen Raspberries

March: Kale

April: Frozen Blueberries

May: Spinach

June: Strawberries

Local farms working with Whatcom Farm-to-School include: Hopewell Farm, Northwest Berry Co-op, Williams Farm, Clark’s Berry Farm, Spring Frog Farm, Osprey Hill Farm, Growing Washington, Viva Farms (Skagit), Ralph’s Greenhouse (Skagit), Barbie’s Berries, and Bellewood Acres.

Real Ideal Meal Contest

Imagine planning school lunches for an entire school district. Whatcom Farm-to-School is partnering with Sustainable Connections to host a contest in Whatcom County encouraging community members to take a whirl at creating their own school cafeteria menu. The contest is open to anyone, and the organization hopes to get submissions from people across the board, including chefs, high school culinary classes, families and children. The menu must use ingredients from a “virtual” pantry of locally sourced winter ingredients. Entries will be judged in two rounds on a number of criteria, with the biggest constraints including budget, simplicity to prepare, taste, creative use of ingredients, utilizing local items in ways kids will eat and MyPlate guidelines, which are USDA established dietary guidelines. Prizes include a first place cash prize of $100, gift certificates and cooking supplies, and county-wide recognition.  Winning meals will be featured in various Whatcom County school cafeterias.

“We are trying to have people come up with ideas of what could be fun and created with local food in school meals,” said Mardi Solomon, Whatcom Farm-to-School Support Team Coordinator. “The hope is that some ideas can be utilized and adapted to actually use in schools.”

Submissions are due by 5 p.m.  Jan. 31. Detailed instructions and the required Ideal Real Meal Submission Form can be found online at www.whatcomfarmtoschool.org.

Another contest, Veggies Go Viral video contest, ended Dec. 31 and winners will be announced in the next month. The contest was for middle and high school students to create a video advertisement encouraging their peers to make healthy choices in the school cafeteria. A viewing party of the video submissions will be held at a later date.

Published in the January 2013 issue of Grow Northwest magazine

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