By Maggie Cramer
In September, WNC’s students chowed down on cool, crisp cucumbers in their cafeterias. But not just any cucumbers: fresh local, Appalachian Grown™ cukes. This month—National Farm to School Month—the focus is on crunchy, colorful cabbage in Get Local @ Schools, a year-round initiative of ASAP’s Growing Minds Farm to School Program that helps schools highlight in-season produce that can be sourced at the cost and volume they require. That’s a volume certainly unlike what goes in and out of our home kitchens.
“I’m responsible for managing the 23 school cafeterias in Henderson County,” shares Henderson County Child Nutrition Director (CND) Christina Dodd. One undeniably hardworking woman, she makes sure that more than 13,500 students are fed each school year. “I plan menus, develop recipes, manage personnel, and work with parents, teachers, and staff. And, I’m responsible for budgeting, ordering food and supplies, as well as ensuring compliance with all local, state, and federal requirements that govern child nutrition programs,” she explains.
Making School Food Local Food
While not necessarily in her job description, Dodd is also an educator about these cafeteria requirements and just how school food works—a complex system but one that can incorporate local food, which Dodd has been making happen for a decade. In recent years, she’s served as the ASAP Growing Minds team’s go-to resource for understanding the school food system and learning how they can best be of service to school food professionals, and she’s used ASAP’s Farm to School resources to ensure that the recipes she creates and menus she plans include Appalachian Grown ingredients whenever possible. At a Growing Minds-hosted institutional food buyer and distributor meet and greet last year, she and other CNDs connected with produce distributors that source much of their produce locally and are able to meet their needs.
“I believe it’s important for children to be exposed to new food items regularly—whether a new variety of apple or a completely new item, like kale. And I think they’re more interested in trying new foods if they know that the food was grown close to their house, or maybe they’ve even seen the item in the field growing,” Dodd says. “Sometimes we don’t give students enough credit and think they won’t eat some of the wonderful produce we have available. But if you keep exposing them to it, they will try it.”
Dodd hopes her conviction and enthusiasm will bring others on board. Her message to fellow CNDs interested in Farm to School but not yet involved, or those worried students might shun unknown fruits and veggies? “Just do it. Decide you’re going to do something even if it’s small. Providing samples in the cafeteria is a great place to start.”
Get Local Gets New Life
Dodd’s messages are just the food for thought Emily Jackson, ASAP’s Growing Minds program director, has been planting in minds for the last decade. So, naturally, Jackson turned to Dodd earlier this year when ASAP was awarded a USDA Farm to School grant. The grant provides funding for ASAP to saturate a Henderson County school with Get Local Farm to School materials and resources. The hope is to create a model Farm to School program that integrates local food in the cafeteria with experiential food and farm-based education in classrooms. Dodd suggested Mills River Elementary, knowing her staff would be excited to try new recipes with Get Local featured foods and to conduct local food taste tests with their students. ASAP knew that thanks to Dodd’s efforts in the county, there would be a cafeteria-classroom-community connection at the school, three very important Cs to Growing Minds.
Since being selected for this project, Dodd’s cafeteria staff and the teachers at Mills River have been eager, dedicated participants. They spent a teacher work day in May out on the farm, preparing to hit the ground running come September. Knowing what a rare opportunity it could be to bring cafeteria staff and teachers together for a farm field trip experience, Growing Minds staff organized an outing to McConnell Farms in Hendersonville. Just as it’s important for kids to know where their food comes from, they feel it’s equally important to have cafeteria staff and teachers establish a relationship with area farmers. The Mills River team toured the farm as students would on a field trip, tasted farm-fresh foods, and whipped up a batch of local strawberry salsa for sampling.
“Being together as a school community in the beautiful setting the farm produced was great,” shares participant Mandi Fletcher, a teacher at Mills River. “It was really neat to see some people you would never imagine on a farm, out walking around and taking in all the farm had to offer.”
While ASAP’s intensive Get Local program at Mills River has only just gotten underway, Fletcher knows the positive experiences with fresh, healthy, local food have already and will continue to impact her students. “I can’t wait to see how the program falls into place at our school and how everyone embraces it and grows with it until the children feel a connection to their community and the food it provides for them.”
Fletcher and her colleagues are celebrating along with the rest of the country now (it’s the National Farm to School Network’s third annual Farm to School month), and she’s eager to participate. “Wonder what we can cook up?!”
That’s just how Dodd feels, as she’s learned that sometimes when incorporating local foods, you just have to wait and see. “Mother nature is on her own schedule.” But that’s what it’s all about, she feels. “Fresher food is always better food.”
Find out what’s happening in classrooms across the country this October at FarmToSchoolMonth.org. And keep up with Mills River and other WNC schools all year long via Growing Minds’ Stories blog at growing-minds.org.
About Farm-to-School Month
Congress approved a resolution officially designating October as National Farm to School Month in November 2010. The Farm to School movement dates back to the early ’90s, when only a handful of Farm to School programs existed. Today, more than 12,500 schools in all 50 states participate in some form of Farm to School activity, according to the National Farm to School Network. The network estimates that more than 131,000 students participated in special Farm to School Month
ASAP’s Upcoming Local Food Events
October 1 and November 7: Farm Burger fundraisers for ASAP. On October 1, the Appalachian Grown partner restaurant will donate a percentage of sales from the evening (5-10 p.m.) to ASAP. On November 7, they’ll host Farm Burger Without the Burger from 8:30 until 11 p.m., where their chef will stretch his culinary skills beyond the bun. He’ll create a multi-course meal using seasonal, local farm products as inspiration. Learn more at fromhere.org.
November 2: ASAP’s 2013 Farm to School Conference, hosted by their Growing Minds Farm to School Program. The daylong event (8 a.m.-4 p.m.) offers multiple workshop sessions geared specifically for all key players: teachers, early childhood educators, professors, education and nutrition students, parents, and child nutrition staff. The fee is $35, which includes admittance to workshops, an in-depth resource notebook, and a local foods breakfast and lunch. Learn more and register at growing-minds.org.
Maggie Cramer is ASAP’s communications manager; she can be reached at Maggie@asapconnections.org. To learn more about ASAP, visit asapconnections.org. Browse their online Local Food Guide for what’s in season now at farm stands, tailgate markets, groceries, and restaurants at appalachiangrown.org.