March 26, 2016

Local farms to feed Cortland students

FoodJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Olga Kostiv, left, and Jen Thomas, with the Cortland Junior-Senior High School kitchen staff, prepare chef salad Friday with fresh lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, onions and green peppers. A $100,000 state grant will help Cortland and Marathon schools benefit from a farm-to-school pipeline in Cortland County and in Binghamton.

Associate Editor

Look on the school lunch trays in Cortland and Marathon in a year or two and you’ll see something other than baked french fries, frozen corn and something called “star potatoes.”
You’ll see fresh lettuce — from a local farmer. Maybe apples from nearby orchards, or fresh-cut carrot coins. And you’ll see even more fresh food because of a $100,000 grant to create a farm-to-school pipeline in Cortland County and in Binghamton.
“Ensuring that our youngest New Yorkers have access to fresh, nutritious food is essential to the future of this state,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week in announcing the grant, which partners Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Education Services with schools in Binghamton, Cortland and Marathon to create a pipeline of food between farmers and nearly 10,000 students. Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Food and Health Network of South Central New York are also involved in a program that extends a federal effort to improve school nutrition.
But the challenge is a little more complex than slapping some lettuce on a kid’s plate, said Raymond Denniston, a special projects coordinator with Broome-Tioga BOCES who has made farm-to-school programs his focus for the better part of a decade. Here are some of the issues:
* Which farmers can guarantee both the quantity of food kids need — and the quality? Those farmers will need Good Agriculture Practices certification.
* How does the food get from the field to the fourth-grader? A collection and distribution system needs to be created.
* How would the program keep kids from picking dirt out of their teeth? The food would need to be preprocessed enough so kitchen staffs can serve it with minimal effort.
“We’re just in the planning stages,” said Francis Zaryski, school lunch manager of Cortland and Marathon schools. “The biggest problem we’re facing is the logistics of delivery.”
“This is really research to find out what’s possible and reasonable and to educate the public and parents,” Denniston said. In fact, school and program officials have yet to meet with farmers to begin building the pipeline — a meeting planned for April 12.
Cortland County was a good extension of Denniston’s effort. “We found Cortland was a pretty nice area for having interested farmers,” he said. “It really makes for an easy expansion for us.”
The idea of bringing local foods into schools has national scope. The federal Department of Agriculture created a pilot program in New York in December 2014 to get fresher food into schools. Today, the program has 17 approved vendors and14 more than are applying to sell to 97 school districts.
“Farm to school programs work — for schools, for producers and for communities,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in announcing the most recent grant. “With early results from our farm to school census indicating schools across the nation invested nearly $600 million in local products, farm to school also provides significant and reliable market for local farmers and ranchers.”
In Cortland County, the effort is likely to start with leafy greens — romaine lettuce, Zaryski said. “I’ve got a huge summer program — let’s get this up and running there.”
However, Denniston knows some of the challenges in dealing with lettuce. He’s bought it from Cortland farmers before — on, he admits, very short notice. “It was beautiful, but it was straight from the field. They (school cooks) called and said they couldn’t get it rinsed in time for lunch.”
School kitchens have only so many cooks, he said. It’s one of the reasons that pre-prepped food is so popular. Rinsing lettuce, cutting carrots, chopping broccoli — it all takes time and manpower. The partnership will need to figure out how to pre-prep the food enough to ease the burden in the kitchen.
The quality is certainly there, he said. “We have taste tests with the kids. It was overwhelming that kids prefer New York apples.” Kids preferred California peeled “baby” carrots to New York carrot coins, but Denniston said the coins were sliced thin, and could be improved, with less waste than the excessive peeling of the bagged “baby” carrots, which are just fully-grown carrots peeled until they’re finger food.
Some other options might be to minimally process some foods — like corn or broccoli — and freeze them for easy cooking, he said. But that would require a processing facility and freezer space. That would ease some of Zaryski’s concern about keeping a consistent supply of a seasonal product.
Despite the challenges, Zaryski sees multiple benefits.
A 2004 study in Greenwich, England, showed that kids who eat a healthier school lunch, rather than a low-budget processed meal, score better in English and science. A 2009 Oxford University study found the scores were between three and eight points better with better nutrition, and a 2014 study in Minnesota also saw improvements.
And those improvements, in Cortland County’s case, can be fueled in a way that helps the rest of the community:
“It’s going to keep the tax dollar local,” Zaryski said. “I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

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