ConVal Schools

Seeds of change found in the lunch line

Effort underway to create farmer network that links locally grown produce to kitchens across the school district

  • The ConVal food service department uses locally grown lettuce in salads served at the high school<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • The ConVal food service department uses locally grown lettuce in salads served at the high school<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • The ConVal food service department uses locally grown lettuce in salads served at the high school<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)

PETERBOROUGH — The Caesar salads on the lunch line at ConVal High School look especially green this spring. That’s because Food Service Director Donna Reynolds is buying some of her lettuce from local farmers this year, and she’s hoping to add carrots, cucumbers, peppers and spinach before the end of the school year.

“Right now, we just getting lettuce and we can’t get all we need,” Reynolds said on Thursday in the ConVal kitchen, as salads went out for the second lunch session at the high school. “I think it’s important to a lot of our parents that we work within our community. We’d like to do that as much as we can.”

At the moment, the lettuce is coming from two sources — Farmer John’s Plot in Dublin and the Cornucopia Project in Peterborough, which has school gardening programs in Hancock, Dublin and at South Meadow School in Peterborough. Reynolds said Kin Schilling of the Cornucopia Project is working to recruit more farmers to participate.

On Thursday, Schilling said the program is just getting started, but she has five or six local farms that have expressed an interest in supplying produce and vegetables for the schools. She said most farmers need to sell at retail prices to make a living, but she’s promoting what she calls “grow a row,” a plan where farmers would set aside one row for each crop that would be intended to be sold at wholesale price to the school system.

“I think when farmers realize it’s a win/win situation, they’ll participate,” Schilling said. “We’re planning to start small and build from there.”

Reynolds said cost is a significant factor when she purchases food.

“Local and organic produce is certainly more expensive,” she said. “We buy at wholesale prices. I hope I’ll be pleasantly surprised when we hear back from the farmers.”

Between March and November, which pretty much encompasses the local growing season, Reynolds uses about 2,500 pounds of lettuce, 900 pounds of regular tomatoes, 2,000 pounds of carrots, 3,000 pounds of cucumbers and 1,300 pints of grape tomatoes to feed students in the 11 ConVal schools.

“We’ll sell 50 or so salads every day here at ConVal,” she said. “We have three options — chef, garden and chicken Caesar. They’re a popular choice.”

Whenever they can get local lettuce, food service staffers mix it with the produce they buy in large quantities from their usual suppliers.

In addition to the challenge of getting enough produce from local sources, the food service needs to have a consistent delivery system. Reynolds said the Cornucopia Project is using space at the Peterborough Community Center and may be able to set up some kind of food hub there, which would make distribution much easier.

A hub might also enable farmers to easily prepare large amounts of produce for delivery.

“Labor is definitely an issue for us,” Reynolds said. “If it requires a lot of prep work, we can’t use it.”

The food service program has also been buying local fruits for its Fresh Fruit and Vegetables program, which is offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture at elementary schools that qualify due to the number of students eligible for reduced rate meals.

The program provides a daily snack, available to all students in the school, which is usually a piece of fresh fruit. It has been running for a couple of years at Antrim Elementary School, Pierce School in Bennington and Great Brook School, which qualified because fifth-graders are classified as elementary school students by the federal government. Francestown Elementary School also qualified this year but probably won’t be eligible next year.

Reynolds has been buying apples, peaches, nectarines, peppers and cherry tomatoes for the program from Tenney Farm in Antrim. She also gets apples from Norway Hill Orchard in Hancock. She said the orchard often has smaller apples that aren’t marketable at the roadside stand but are just the right size for a snack for elementary school students.

The snacks are delivered by a carts that go to each classroom at GBS in the middle of the day and are delivered directly to the classrooms at the elementary schools.

“It’s been a huge hit, very popular with the kids,” Reynolds said.

In addition to the food that’s being purchased locally, students at the schools with gardens are starting to grow their own vegetables. In Dublin, Reynolds said, cook Lori Lewandowski is on site every day and the Cornucopia Project has a garden, which makes it easy to coordinate.

“Kin brings things in from the garden and Lori cooks with them,” Reynolds said. “The kids know it’s coming from their own garden. They really enjoy that.”

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