Blaine schools bring the harvest into the cafeteria

Published on Thu, Sep 20, 2012 by Carissa Wright

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Last October at Blaine Elementary School, the district’s food service director Laurie Pike walked around the cafeteria with a tray of cauliflower – purple cauliflower. 

Interestingly, she said, girls at that age (third to fifth grade) are much more adventurous than the boys. The girls were happy to give the strangely colored vegetable a try, while the boys were “a little more nervous.”

However, Pike said, not one student who tried the cauliflower said, “Ew, I hate that.”

The cauliflower made its way to the elementary school as part of the countywide Harvest of the Month program.

Harvest of the Month is an attempt to increase access to local fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias across Whatcom County. Each month features a different Whatcom-grown fruit or vegetable, and each school incorporates it in its lunch offerings one day each month. 

“We feature one item that grows locally each month,” said Mardi Solomon, a leader of the Whatcom Farm-to-School Support Team, which administers the Harvest of the Month program. The featured veggie for September is cherry tomatoes, and October will bring broccoli and cauliflower back again. (For the full year’s menu, visit whatcomfarmtoschool.org and click on Harvest of the Month.)

“We can (bring in local produce) on a smallish scale to start with,” Solomon said. “It allows us to work through all the different logistical issues involved.”

Even featuring just one locally grown item is a huge logistical challenge for the county’s school districts, Solomon said. Districts have to address issues of procurement, processing, delivery, cooking, education and outreach. 

Last year was the pilot year for the program. Pike said each district planned Harvest of the Month lunches for a different day, and each planned their own advertising and promotion for the special menu. This meant that each district had to coordinate delivery with the farm supplying the produce, often with an assist from Solomon. 

Pike said she often picked up produce direct from farmers last year, or “met Mardi in a parking lot” to hand off the goods. Processing was also a hurdle – dirt-covered carrots delivered straight from the ground are not particularly cost-effective to wash, peel and chop to feed several hundred students. 

At the end of last school year, all of the county’s food service directors met with Solomon and the Farm to School team to discuss the program’s successes, failures and ideas for improvement.  

Though the calendar will be the same, that meeting helped spur a few changes for the 2012-2013 school year. 

Now each school district will be participating in Harvest of the Month on the same day (the last Thursday of the month), and a new staffer at the countywide level is helping to coordinate advertising. 

And the change Pike is most excited about: A dedicated delivery driver who will bring produce from local farms to participating schools. For smaller schools delivery had been a major issue, Pike said.

“I don’t want that to be the stopping point,” she added.

Every student can try the Harvest of the Month offering, Pike said, not just those who purchase lunch. On September 27, the cafeteria will serve a cherry tomato and basil pasta salad. 

“We’ll see how the kids do with it,” Pike said. She pointed out that the month’s menu includes the dish’s recipe, so parents can make it at home.

Harvest of the Month isn’t the only way Pike is working to bring local, healthy food to Blaine students. 

For a good portion of the year, most of the fresh fruit in the cafeteria is grown in Washington, Pike said. And a number of produce options available through the district’s major supplier, Food Services of America, are grown in-state. Pike has also ramped up the fruits and vegetables regularly on the district menus, with green and red peppers a common snack and peaches, grapes and oranges playing a major dessert role. Pike has been pleasantly surprised by the response, especially from the younger students.

“The elementary school is really going through the vegetables,” she said, adding that introducing new, tasty produce helps create the demand. “We’re creating a palate for them, and that’s never going to be a negative.”