Fresh not frozen - Farm to School's initiative
Dinner time is rapidly approaching on a cold winter night, and Ali Berlow of the Farm Grown Initiative and Farm to School Program stands in front of her stove, tending to three pots of varying sizes. A wood-burning stove at the kitchen's entrance emanates heat, leaving the large room cozy and warm. With her long silver hair glistening under the lights, Ms. Berlow is clearly at home in the kitchen preparing healthy meals of fresh, local ingredients for her husband and sons. And now Ms. Berlow is among a group that is hoping to bring these same local ingredients to the Island's school lunches.
"In order to help create more of a sustainable reality here, economically, agriculturally, health, all these things, they really start now with kids," Ms. Berlow says.
This fledgling program is getting its wings at a time when federal lawmakers are trying to enact legislation that would place a national ban on selling junk foods like candy, soda, and fatty food in school vending machines and à la carte cafeteria lines. The move would require an amendment to the farm bill.
The Farm to School program is a project in the works being explored by participants in the Island Grown Initiative, which was started a few years ago by Melinda DeFeo. With the initial goal of connecting diners to farmers, the group is now exploring ways to get more locally grown foods into school lunches while connecting kids to food and farming. Ms. Berlow says there are three ways to get this done: by integrating farming into the curriculum; by getting local food into the cafeteria; and by getting the community involved in supporting the program.
"It's not about going 100 percent local. That's not realistic," Ms. Berlow says while sipping tea at her kitchen table. Since there is an abundance of local produce on the Island, Ms. Berlow hopes some of it can be integrated into school lunches in moderation.
"We're just trying to look at what are the small steps to integrate the commodity products," she says. One idea is to offer one locally grown soup per week.
Aside from the Charter School, Island schools offer a mixture of food - some frozen and some prepared on-site. The founders of the Farm to School program want to learn about food preparation in the schools' kitchens, to understand how they might blend local products into menus. Introducing locally grown food in school cafeterias will be a complicated task. Farm to School will need to find out the state's rules and regulations, and USDA guidelines while making sure the integration is cost effective and time efficient. But Ms. Berlow is quick to point out that as the price of fuel increases, the gap between the price of local food and non-local food gets smaller.
To better understand what is possible, Ms. Berlow says the group would like someone from the state to meet with school administrators and farmers to explain to them what's possible.
The first public meeting last month drew nearly 75 people, including food handlers, teachers, school administrators, farmers, parents, and members of the community. Ms. Berlow says the reception was fabulous. "This is really the beginning of the dialogue, and the dialogue needs to have actions." She hopes that changes can be made soon and that they will be long-lasting. In the meantime, speaking of the interest and enthusiasm in Farm to School, she says, "It's so exciting."
For more information, email Ms. Berlow at email@example.com.
Heather Curtis is a contributing writer to The Times.