By Alison Rooney
Haldane students are in for a treat next week when their Thursday (Sept. 30) lunch selection includes a truly fresh-from-the-fields “Farmer’s Choice” vegetable course of roasted butternut squash with maple syrup puree, prepared from a recipe by a local professional chef.
This savory and nutritious addition to the usual school lunch menu is the first of what will be a year-long, once a month initiative to take advantage of the bountiful produce of the Hudson Valley. The program will not only serve farm-fresh food to the students, but will complement it with side courses of classroom nutrition education, recipe collecting, visits from farmers, and, most importantly, planting, cultivating and harvesting in Haldane’s new children’s garden. By this time next year, the monthly selection may well be something that the students have grown themselves.
This new program is specific to Haldane, but it is part of a national network called “Farm to School,” which, according to their literature,”enables every child to have access to nutritious food while simultaneously benefiting communities and local farmers.” Supported at a state level by the New York State Department of Agriculture, the regional division is devoted to increasing the consumption of New York-grown foods in schools. Although seasonality might be thought to impede the year-round supply of all but root vegetables in New York, the “high-tunnel” methods now being used by many area farms, now allow for a variety of produce, even during winter. As part of the efforts to stem the U.S. childhood obesity epidemic, Farm to School works in tandem with the Michelle Obama-sponsored “Let’s Move” program in encouraging young people to understand what is healthy, what is not, and to create “food literate” citizens.
Sowing the seeds
The seeds for this idea were sown by Haldane parent Sandy McKelvey, who first learned of the program from the farmers at Beacon’s Common Ground Farm, where she was a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) farm share member last year. Enthusiastic about implementing the program, she joined the Haldane Wellness Committee and put together a proposal. It included outlines of what other schools across the country have done to promote student wellness by encouraging the use of fresh vegetables in the cafeteria and combining this with classroom activities in nutrition education.
The proposal generated interest and led McKelvey to host a popular table at last year’s Haldane Health Fair, where five varieties of local apples were taste-tested. Common Ground Farm conducted a planting activity, and farmer Carolyn Llewellyn of Glynwood Farm talked about seed to plant growth. It was a successful introduction to the Farm to School project.
By the end of the school year, Cindy Miozzi, Haldane’s Food Service Director, said she was willing to experiment with a once a month fresh vegetable service, and named the program “Farmer’s Choice.” McKelvey enlisted the help of Cold Spring Farmers’ Market co-manager Steve Bates, who provided contact information for local farmers. Glynwood farmers Dave and Carolyn Llewellyn provided introductions to local, seasonally-based chefs Mark and Sunny Gandara, of Fork and Glass, LLC. Mark Gandara toured the Haldane cafeteria and met with food service staff to see what was feasible.
It was ascertained that a lot is possible, as the food preparation portion of the cafeteria is large, and is, as opposed to many school facilities, a “scratch kitchen,” meaning that food can be prepared from scratch, rather than merely warmed up. Afterward he enthusiastically provided the recipe for the first dish. Since then Gandara has done a lot of legwork, calling around to farms all over the area, obtaining the best price.
The staff at the cafeteria has been “extremely cooperative,” according to McKelvey. Both Cindy Miozzi and Elsa Albanese, who do the cooking, are food professionals (Albanese’s family owns Pasquale Trattoria in Carmel), and gave a “no problem” answer when asked about preparing the squash, saying that they love cooking and that this will be fun. McKelvey said she has found it important to work with the food service staff, to understand what their challenges are and that such cooperation makes it pleasant for all.
According to McKelvey, Haldane serves about 400 meals a day, which translates into approximately 50 percent of the students. Students can purchase full meals, which have five components, the “Farmer’s Choice” being one of them, or they can order a la carte. Vegetarian students will find that 3 of 5 of the choices are always meat-free.
Students will be involved in planning and choosing the featured selection in future months. Field trips are planned to local farms, and recipe contests are envisioned. McKelvey emphasized that “the education component is key.” Kids not familiar with certain foods may be reluctant to try them. The children’s garden, now ready to be inaugurated, is critical to this experiential learning. A Farm to School fair, with cooking demos, taste tests, and a screening of “What’s On Your Plate,” is planned for April. Some of the most successful Farm to School programs in the nation are focused around salad bars. This may be a future possibility at Haldane, as it may be particularly appealing to high schoolers.
The Farm to School idea is also germinating in Garrison. A number of parents have been discussing a similar program there as well, especially given the existing garden on site. McKelvey says that a goal of the Haldane Farm to School group is to expand its outreach and to establishing “sister programs” in nearby low income areas. One possibility would be in Newburgh, where one school has close to half its student body eligible for free or reduced price lunches.
Chefs Mark and Sunny Gandara came along to the elementary school’s curriculum night this past week to preview the dish for parents. On Thursday night, children and parents can talk culinary, and hopefully, some kids may be inspired to put in a request for more of the same at home.
For more information on the Farm to School program, visit Farmtoschool.org.
Sandy McKelvey, who brought the program to Haldane: “Since your article was published, we moved into our second phase of the program, the curriculum component called Chef in the Classroom. Chef in the Classroom is a program where students get to work side by side with a professional chef and create a dish using a locally grown vegetable. Using a chart that lists all the vegetables that are available during a particular month, the students vote on which vegetable to highlight. Then Chef Mark Gandara comes into the classroom bringing along his ‘mobile kitchen,’ and with the students’ participation they create a vegetable dish together. In October it was ‘Broccoli Surprise.’ In November, it was Pumpkin soup. And in December we will be doing something with beets.”