Do you know your farmer?

Local products a huge hit for taste buds, nutrition

Barbara Sutherland slices meat at the Manaugh Elementary cafeteria. Cortez public schools are making a point of using more local food for school lunches. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Barbara Sutherland slices meat at the Manaugh Elementary cafeteria. Cortez public schools are making a point of using more local food for school lunches.

Cortez, Mancos, and Dolores schools are all serving more locally produced foods to support area farmers and promote better nutrition.

Area soup kitchens, restaurants, and the food court at Southwest Memorial Hospital have embraced the fresh-food movement as well.

Kim Lindgren, community food coordinator for Livewell Montezuma, says the effort has been paying off, although it took some training.

“Food service in schools had gotten used to the snip, pour and heat method, so there was a learning curve on scratch cooking,” she said. “They lost their cooking skills, but now they are going the other way. Consultants came in to make assessments on ordering, menus, and operations.”

The schools are ordering more and more produce from local farmers every year, Lindgren said.

For example, 80 percent of beef served at the Cortez schools is from Sunnyside Meats in Durango and other local livestock producers. Wheat flour from Cortez Milling is used for breads and baked goods, and salad bars are now stocked with fresh greens from local gardens and vegetable farms.

“Last year Mancos and Cortez served 21,000 pounds of local produce,” Lindgren said. “Less processed means more nutrition. In Dolores, the salad bar is open four days per week now.”

Cortez schools serves up to 1,600 meals per day. In Mancos, 200 meals per day are dished out.

Sandi VanHoutean, Re-1 food service director, reports her staff has taken LiveWell culinary training for scratch cooking using local products with positive results.

“The local food we have been purchasing is so much healthier than the pre-packaged product,” she said. “The color is more vibrant, chemical free, and it actually has flavor compared to the pre-packaged product.”

Learning proper handling, storage and preparation of raw foods has also been a priority for the kitchen staff, VanHoutean added.

LiveWell is working toward incorporating dry beans into school meals, which also would require staff training. Preparing beans at altitude takes some prep work, mainly soaking for eight hours and another 4-8 hours of low-heat cooking.

New USDA rules limit sodium for school meals, creating an impetus to start using dried beans more, she said.

This year, buying from local producers has become more official with bids going out to local growers and the contracts awarded and signed promising delivery.

“That is significant because it is becoming a more institutionalized process that helps the farmer and the buyer long-term,” Lindgren said.

Meanwhile at Southwest Memorial Hospital, the food court’s fresh menu and fine salad bar featuring locally raised food has gained a reputation as an excellent place for breakfast and lunch. It is open to the public from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday and is easily accessible from the hospital’s south entrance.

Executive Chef Dan Viti, director of hospitality services, takes pride in the unconventional eatery’s growing popularity. A big part of the success is cooking from scratch using local meats, fresh veggies, and a salad bar stocked with local greens.

“The quality has gone up, and we’ve had a huge response. People are really praising our kitchen team,” he said. “It’s more entertaining for the staff when they get compliments all day.”

Viti has forged a relationship with local growers, and loves to take advantage of fresh pork raised in the area.

“All of our bacon, our breakfast sausage, Italian sausage, pulled pork barbecue sandwiches and pork loin are made from scratch using local producers,” he said. “It makes sense because this is such a prime area for agricultural products.”

For patients, the improved nutrition plays a big part in the healing process, he adds. Viti plans to train his staff to creating more homemade baked goods in the near future.

“Locally raised farm products are far superior to our regular vendors. Plus it tastes better and is more nutritious for our patients and the public,” he said.

At Re-1 and other shcools, the connection to local agriculture is a cornerstone for the community with long-term benefits for kids.

“Just to see the beautiful produce delivered to our warehouse, and know that the farmer planted the seeds and tended the land for students to have a healthier meal is an incredible feeling,” VanHoutean said. “The students love it when a producer visits their school. When they see the face of who actually produced the food they want to try more.”

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com