Ramping up local in upstate New York
By Anna Mullen, Digital Media Associate
Saranac Lake High School students harvest celeriac at Fledging Crow Vegetables Farm. (Photo courtesy of SLHS Green Storm)
Before Saranac Lake Central School District (Saranac Lake, N.Y.) was awarded a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant, local produce in the cafeteria was rare. But serving local foods on special occasions like Farm to School Month had been successful at getting students excited to try new vegetables, so Food Service Director Ruth Pino was eager to do more.
“I realized I could help young people learn about good food and healthy eating by serving them real, fresh food,” Pino says. “At our school, 36 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch. But the real challenge is that the district is very rural and spread out, so when students are hungry, there are not many options for accessing good, local food, aside from school.” Plus, she notes, “Farm to school is also about supporting local farmers, and there are many in our area.”
Beginning this fall, three local farmers will supply the district’s five school with fresh, local produce including carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, onions and potatoes. Fresh fruit will be brought in from a nearby orchard. Other relationships are thriving as well, such as with Paul Smith’s College, whose culinary students teamed up with Pino this spring to prepare and serve locally raised chicken to the district’s students. “It’s helping support our community,” Pino says, “and students are getting excited when they see that we have new foods for them to try.”
Less than 150 miles west of Saranac Lake, a similar initiative is taking root in New York’s Watertown City School District. In partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, Watertown was also awarded a USDA Farm to School Planning Grant for FY 2015. With the grant, Watertown set goals of incorporating more locally grown foods into its meal programs to improve student health and link nutrition to lifelong learning.
In addition to introducing new local foods in the cafeteria, the district’s five elementary schools launched a harvest of the month initiative, where students not only learn about and try new local foods, but also meet the farmers who produce them. “A local dairy farmer came in February with a demonstration cow, and there was a butter-making station,” district Farm to School Coordinator April Neujean said. “The state dairy princess came, too!”
Students at North Elementary School learn about cow from local farmer Ron Kuck during February’s Harvest of the Month activities. (Photo courtesy of WCSD Farm to School)
The district’s middle and high school students are learning about local food systems as well, with guest lectures on hydroponics, beneficial and invasive bugs, and robotic tilling. Furthermore, the district has planted its first school garden, giving students the opportunity to engage in growing their own food. As Neujean explains, “This education has been a good way to help students become excited about the food changes in the cafeteria. When kids have a farm to school program, they have a positive attachment to food because they know where it comes from.”
Getting kids excited about healthy eating isn’t the only benefit of these farm to school programs. What makes farm to school at Watertown and Saranac Lake school districts impressive is their drive for collaboration and growing the movement throughout upstate New York. “The community support and excitement has been remarkable,” Neujean said. The two districts have worked together to share ideas and build capacity for making more local procurement possible. And, Saranac Lake is actively encouraging nearby school districts to join them in farm to school activities. By encouraging more schools to buy local, the districts are helping open the doors to new institutional markets for local family farmers.
Thanks to these two USDA Farm to School grantees, an entire region is poised for local food transformation. Their initiatives are helping kids develop healthy eating habits, providing new markets for farmers and building up strong partnerships that foster vibrant communities. These programs are not only ramping up local procurement in their cafeterias, but also laying the groundwork for schools across upstate New York to go local. That’s a delicious win for students, an economic win for farmers, and an energizing win for all of upstate New York.