Move over, mystery meat

Farm-to-school efforts are giving local kids’ lunches a major makeover

Locally raised beef is served with a smile by Margaret Wilhite, a cook at Escalante Middle School. Wilhite carries a tray of beef patties produced by Sunnyside Farms served as hamburgers for lunch Thursday. Enlargephoto

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Locally raised beef is served with a smile by Margaret Wilhite, a cook at Escalante Middle School. Wilhite carries a tray of beef patties produced by Sunnyside Farms served as hamburgers for lunch Thursday.

If you want a sign change is afoot in area school cafeterias, just look at the menu. Students are eating some of the same local produce served at Durango’s finest restaurants.

Penne pasta with meat sauce, roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, and hamburger sliders – all served with fresh vegetables and fruit.

“We get varieties (of produce) that kids have never seen,” said Krista Garand, student nutrition director for Durango School District 9-R.

What next? White linen napkins?

Part of what has made this possible is a process implemented last year and continuing this year that combines the supply needs of five area school districts – Durango, Cortez, Bayfield, Mancos and Ignacio – under one collective bid process.

The advantage for growers is myriad. Before they even plant their crops, they’ll know who their buyer is, how much is needed and what they’ll be paid. The advantage for the school districts is they get a break on price because they are buying in bulk.

Last year, 13 area growers responded. This year’s bid process opened earlier this month and closes Feb. 28.

“We’re hoping for even more this year,” Garand said.

Communities not commodities

Ken Meter, keynote speaker at a recent conference in Cortez about local food, said bolstering local food systems is “the best work anyone can do to bring the U.S. economy back on track.”

Local food has the advantage of cutting down on fossil fuel use because it doesn’t have to travel the 1,500 miles the average piece of grocery store produce does, Meter said. By arriving to the table fresher, it is more nutritious. And the dollars spent on local food stay in the community and generate local jobs.

What’s more, residents can have a relationship with their farmer – greet him or her at the market, shoot the bull about the weather, ask when the tomatoes are going to be ripe.

Meter referred to it as “investing in communities, not commodities.”

So if local food is so great, why is it just now that schools are starting to buy more of it?

These are some of the barriers cited by people working on the matter:

Public schools, funded by tax dollars, must seek the lowest price, making it difficult for small growers to compete against large-scale, heavily mechanized farms.

Growers that supply schools must use specified safety practices that protect against tainted food. Small growers may not be trained in these methods or have the resources to implement them.

Many farm acres in La Plata County and the surrounding counties are dedicated to growing hay and alfalfa – neither of which look too tasty on a school lunch tray.

Kids eat a lot. Every day, even.

Garand said Durango schools collectively serve 2,400 lunches a day. Even if every vegetable grown in the county went to the schools, it wouldn’t come near covering the demand.

At the Cortez food conference, Garand recounted the case of a farmer who proudly delivered 500 pounds of potatoes. Imagine his chagrin when he learned that his bountiful yield would be gone in a single day.

Garand said she told him, “Grow 10,000 pounds and I’ll buy them.”

An easier row to hoe

While not much can be done about the amount kids eat, efforts are advancing on the other obstacles.

In 2010, legislation was passed to create a statewide Farm to School Task Force. Garand is one of the members.

Lyn Kathlene, who serves as staff for the task force, said having a legislatively mandated task force has propelled Colorado into the farm-to-school vanguard.

“In two years, we have become a leader in the country,” said Kathlene, who also is senior research associate at the Spark Policy Institute in Denver.

Locally, training programs are being offered to help farmers develop plans to satisfy governmental safety requirements. And the school bid process is providing a known, quantifiable market for their produce.

Other programs are working to grow farmers. The Old Fort Market Garden Incubator Program is using 3 acres of irrigated farmland near the Old Fort Lewis campus near Hesperus to give aspiring growers a kickstart.

Mike Nolan of Mountain Roots Produce is helping with the training and also is one of the growers that was contracted by the schools through the last bid process.

“It’s really nice to go into the season knowing you already have an outlet for your product,” said Nolan, who supplied the schools 2,400 pounds of potatoes as well as carrots, beats, turnips and rutabaga for the district’s Thanksgiving meal.

He said he finds it gratifying to know that hundreds of kids are eating his food, and he plans to bid again this year.

Although he charges schools less than restaurants or stores, the quantity he sells – and the expense he saves in labor and delivery – makes it pencil out economically.

Nolan is poised to expand his production next year with the purchase of around 10 acres of land. Previously, he has farmed on leased land, which has prevented him from making infrastructure investments that would allow him to scale up.

Getting to this point has taken years, but that is the nature of farming. He said a farmer who works the land for 20 years will still only have brought crops to harvest 20 times. In-between is a lot of working and waiting – a reality that is true, too, of farm-to-school efforts.

But that’s OK.

“Farmers are very patient,” he said.

kburford@durangoherald.com

Locally grown potatoes are roasted for lunch at Escalante Middle School on Thursday. Enlargephoto

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Locally grown potatoes are roasted for lunch at Escalante Middle School on Thursday.

An Escalante Middle School student enters his lunch code as he exits the line with a tray filled with locally produced beef and potatoes. Enlargephoto

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

An Escalante Middle School student enters his lunch code as he exits the line with a tray filled with locally produced beef and potatoes.

Apples from Mattic’s Orchard in Olathe are among the choices in the Escalante Middle School salad bar during lunch Thursday. Enlargephoto

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Apples from Mattic’s Orchard in Olathe are among the choices in the Escalante Middle School salad bar during lunch Thursday.