Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center

The trials and successes of farm-to-school

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Farm-to-school efforts have taken off nationwide in the last few years. It’s not hard to imagine why. Mired though we are in partisan arguments at every layer of our society, children eating vegetables is, inarguably, an all-around good. At Oxbow, we grow good food and teach kids about how it’s done. Getting this good food on kids’ lunch plates is right in our wheelhouse, and we are working with school districts and our neighboring farms to move the statewide farm-to-school effort along in our community.

Early last month, the state of Washington celebrated Taste Washington Day, a Washington School Nutrition Association (WSNA) and Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA)-sanctioned event encouraging school districts to procure and serve food from Washington farms. Across the Riverview School District—our local Duvall and Carnation school district—Taste Washington Day was a blowout. Every ingredient at the schools’ salad bars was sourced locally—beets, white and purple carrots, and green beans from Oxbow, cabbage from Camp Korey in Carnation, and salad greens from Willie Green’s in Monroe, sweet peppers from Caruso Farms, and radishes from One Leaf Farm. Students from Cedarcrest High School’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter traveled the cafeterias with trays of veggies and cheese from Cherry Valley Dairy, chatting with students and talking up their samples to encourage students to give them all a try.

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Cedarcrest High School FFA students hand out samples to students at Carnation Elementary on Taste Washington Day.

We sent farmers to Carnation Elementary, Stillwater Elementary, and Tolt Middle School to interact with students and put faces to the food. That was fun for the kids and the farmers. Growers and consumers rarely interact anymore. It’s a novelty for us to witness our food being served in a cafeteria and, as we know from hosting kids on the farm, many children have little understanding about where their food comes from.

Many people deserve credit for making Taste Washington Day a success at Riverview, but none more than Kaye Wetli, Riverview’s Supervisor of Food Services. Tirelessly fighting an uphill battle to provide local food to her students, Kaye’s many efforts finally seem to be paying off. From no local foods a few years ago, now Riverview schools offer up local delights every month through a new Harvest of the Month program.

Harvest of the Month is what it sounds like—once a month, Kaye works to source an ingredient for the school’s daily salad bar from a local producer. September was cherry tomatoes, October salad greens. November will be carrots. A school lunch menu that is distributed widely across the district highlights each month’s ingredient and the day it will be served. Posters in the cafeterias advertise to students which foods are local and where they came from.

A single local ingredient once a month may seem like a small accomplishment until you consider the roadblocks school administrators like Kaye are up against in their efforts to serve local food in schools. Every step in procuring and preparing local vegetable falls outside of Kaye’s normal procedures. Fruit and vegetable orders from Food Services of America, a nationwide distributor and Kaye’s go-to supplier, arrive at her prep cafeteria already washed, peeled (if necessary) and sliced—in other words, ready-made for no-prep serving or cooking. Local veggies, however, arrive at Kaye’s kitchen requiring several hours of preparation. Food service workers must chop full, foot-long carrots down into less intimidating kid-sized carrot sticks before they go out on the floor.

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Carnation Elementary students serve themselves local food from the salad bar on Taste Washington Day

 

Another complication for Kaye is local purchasing under federal procurement requirements. Crossing her “T”s and dotting her “I”s requires a lot of back-and-forth communication with multiple farmers. This is challenging enough for Kaye, but for farmers in the middle of their growing season, virtually impossible. Kaye works under deadline pressure to prepare her menus ahead of time and farmers struggle to justify such complicated negotiations to make sales that amount to relatively small sums. Last year, communications challenges derailed Harvest of the Month mid-season.

Sarah Cassidy, Oxbow’s Education Manager and the historical leader of our farm-to-school efforts, had been in talks with Kaye for several years, offering support for a program that is high on Oxbow’s priority list. “Who doesn’t want our local kids eating local food?” Sarah asks. “It’s a perfect pairing.  But small farms and big institutions have a lot of translating to do to speak the same language.  And so that is where we presently find ourselves, in the translation phase.”  Late this past spring, we hired Angela Feng, a recent UW grad in Environmental Studies to help with that translation work. Two months in, we are seeing Angela’s work pay off.

A major component of Angela’s work with Kaye this summer was to streamline communication between Kaye and the farming community. This was the biggest struggle for Kaye and the biggest opportunity for Oxbow, the home of several farmers with long histories and large networks within the Snoqualmie and Snohomish Valleys. Angela worked with Sarah to set up meetings with Kaye and several local farmers—Willie of Willie Green’s Organics, Vince Caruso of Caruso Farms, and Alice VanderHaak (our former intern and Ballard Farmers Market rep) of One Leaf Farm—to try to find a means of communicating prices and delivery logistics that would be easy for both sides to participate in.

These meetings yielded good results for everyone. Kaye and the farmers were able to understand each other’s circumstances and realize that they are allies approaching the same problem from different angles. Everyone involved agreed that local schoolchildren eating local food was a goal worth pushing for, despite institutional difficulties. Angela followed up by creating a resource packet for Kaye with contact information and delivery logistics for eight different farms. Those farms added Kaye to their list of recipients for their “fresh sheet”—the list of what’s fresh and available for order any given week—so that Kaye can keep tabs on what foods she can find, and at what prices. One simple cultural divide eliminated!

Now? The season is rolling and Harvest of the Month is operating as planned. Kaye has sketched out a rough plan with farmers for ingredients they are likely to have in the winter and spring months, with necessary flexibility built in to accommodate small farming realities. Harvest of the Month has been a good start, and Kaye hopes that this season’s streamlined system may allow her to serve local food more frequently—maybe once a week—in years to come.

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Educational signage in the Carnation Elementary School cafeteria.

 

Building on this season’s momentum, Oxbow and Riverview are building on our partnership and extending it to Monroe School District in northeastern King County. The USDA recently awarded Oxbow a Local Food Promotion Program* grant that will allow us, in collaboration with SnoValley Tilth, to work with schools and farmers to figure out how we can overcome more farm-to-school obstacles. By helping food service workers manage rule-heavy federal purchasing requirements, getting kids to open up to new foods, and assisting local farms to accommodate the schools’ needs, we hope to find workable solutions that can be shared with other schools wanting to serve kids local foods.

WSDA first partnered with the WSNA for Taste Washington Day in 2010. According to WSDA director Ben Hover, “Taste Washington Day helps students understand where their food comes from and gives them a chance to try fresh, healthy foods,” WSDA Director Bud Hover said. “It also celebrates our state’s farmers and ranchers who grow a range of crops and foods – from asparagus and beef to wheat and zucchini.” Taste Washington Day is a component of WSDA’s Farm to School Program, which provides training and workshops, problem-solving, and policy assistance around Washington to help schools and farms work together.

Taste Washington Day with Tricia Kovacs

Oxbow Farmer Lauren Ralph with Cedarcrest High School FFA students and Tricia Kovacs from the WSDA Farm to School Program at Stillwater Elementary School.

 

Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, a nonprofit based in Mt. Vernon, provides statewide farm-to school assistance by offering workshops, information, and technical assistance for schools looking to buy food from Washington farmers.

We are currently hiring for two positions related to this grant and upcoming project: One is a part-time Institutional Markets Coordinator, who will help Valley farms to become certified in Good Agricultural Practices, a voluntary USDA audit that opens farms to new markets, including public schools.

We are also looking for a Farm-to-School Consultant to expand on Angela’s work, collaborating with schools and farmers to increase the Valley’s farm-to school capacity.

*Funding for the project is made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service through grant I5LFPPWA0003. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA.  

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