School lunches brandishing local flavor

Associate Editor

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Feb. 7, 2017) — A stream of students filed into the lunch line in the cafeteria at Rolling Knolls Elementary School on Feb. 2 and piled onto their trays heaps of fruits and vegetables, including green apples grown at Colora Orchards in Cecil County.
For the school to be reimbursed for a lunch under federal guidelines, each student’s tray must receive at least half a cup of fruit or vegetables. Many students at Rolling Knolls Elementary took considerably more.
“They love it,” said Marla LeTourneau, an area specialist for food and nutrition at Anne Arundel County Schools. “If you’re introducing these items to them (at a young age), they’re used to them. It’s part of what they do.”
It’s that sort of enthusiasm, government officials said, that’s boosted Maryland school spending on locally produced food from zero in 2008 to $18 million in 2015, according to the state department of agriculture.
On average, Maryland schools spend at least 23 percent of their food budgets on local products, which is ninth-highest in the nation, recent USDA statistics show. Puerto Rico, which spent 38 percent on local food in 2013-14, was No. 1.
Much of that progress can be credited to the state’s Jane Lawton Farm-to-School program born out of legislation passed in 2008, Fedor said.
The program encourages public schools to purchase locally produced foods, and the state agriculture department works with schools and other organizations, including the Maryland Farm Bureau, to those ends.
“School systems don’t have to buy local, but they’re encouraged to buy local,” said Karen Fedor, a senior agricultural marketing specialist who oversees the farm-to-school program at the state agriculture department. “People like it. And they see the value in it.”
In a survey of Maryland school food service managers, 100 percent said they bought local vegetables; 96 percent said they bought local fruits; 59 percent said they bought local milk; and 22 percent said they bought local meat and poultry.
“Local and sustainable sells,” said Jeffrey Proulx, who oversees food and nutrition services at Washington County Public Schools, speaking at a recent state agricultural policy conference. “Clearly, it gets easier over time. … Once you get moving, the ball just rolls.”
Proulx said he takes advantage of freshness inherent to local growers’ food. Year-round, his system has apples and peaches, and at the conference he told a story about using local tomatoes to make and freeze bags of tomato sauce for off-season use.
“Why would I not buy a Washington County apple instead of a Washington state apple? My distributor was sending me Washington state apples, which is ridiculous,” he said.
The program has sparked more interest in agriculture at schools across the state, Fedor said, leading more to grow on school property in gardens and greenhouses. But farm-to-school programs, particularly in larger Maryland counties, could be a coup for Maryland growers looking to diversify, according to the state agriculture department. Schools may be a good market for farmers who already grow commercial-scale fruits and vegetables such as watermelons.
More obscure items can sell as well. On the first Friday of each month, every Anne Arundel County public school participates in the Tasting of the Rainbow program, which exposes students to new and different fruits and vegetables. On Friday, Feb. 2, students were set to try red radish from Baywater Greens in Salisbury, Md. The shoots would be available along with the more typical array of fruits and vegetables, including cantalopes, watermelon, apples and bananas.
“With the variety we put out, they’re going to find something they like,” LeTourneau said.