Farm to School program taking root in Roaring Fork Valley | AspenTimes.com

Farm to School program taking root in Roaring Fork Valley

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

Published: Jennifer Vanian Special to the Post Independent

There's been a push in the past few years to encourage school districts throughout the United States to provide as much local, fresh food to their students as possible. Making it feasible and affordable for all schools is the next step.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its first-ever Farm to School census, which showed that schools throughout the nation served locally sourced foods to more than 21 million students and reinvested more than $350 million back into local economies.

In Colorado, 61 percent of school districts reported participating in Farm to School activities or planning to in the near future. Within the Roaring Fork School District that runs from Glenwood Springs to Basalt, all nine schools participate in the Farm to School program.

The most current lunch statistics for Colorado schools come from the 2011-12 school year. In that time frame, the Roaring Fork School District had $500,000 in total food costs, with 3 percent of that food budget spent locally.

According to Michelle Hammond, the director of food services for the district, her goal is to see more Farm to School foods served, but finding funds and the people to help maintain what they have is a challenge.

"There's lots of government grant funding available," Hammond said. "But the application process is very involved and time-consuming. The food-service department is self supporting, and it's tough to find funds to hire someone to help with the application process."

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The district already has several areas in place to grow fresh vegetables. Roaring Fork High School has a growing dome that can operate year-round as well as some land outside the dome for the summer season.

Basalt Elementary has a courtyard garden for seasonal growth, and there's a grow area next to Sopris Elementary at Mountain Valley Development Services.

When school is in session, these gardens also provide a live classroom for students to learn about fresh vegetables and how they're grown. The students also can help maintain the gardens.

But when summer break kicks in, the work force is gone.

"It's frustrating trying to find volunteers to help maintain the gardens in the summer months," Hammond said. "In the past, we've had some grant money to hire people to work the gardens, but we don't have that funding now. It's also difficult to win these grants within our district.

"We have around 40 percent of our students districtwide on the free and reduced lunch program, but we're going up against some districts that run at 100 percent free and reduced lunches. Those programs will get the grants first."

Kevin Concannon is the undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services for the USDA. He's heard the call for a simpler process to apply for USDA grant money and said he's looking into ways to help make that happen.

He suggested that the Roaring Fork School District might consider pairing a grant application with a neighboring district with a higher percentage of students within the free- and reduced-price-lunch program.

Where both Concannon and Hammond agree is to see more education directed toward the kids concerning nutrition and taking advantage of school gardens.

"Those school gardens are like laboratories," Concannon said. "It allows kids to take pride in the growing process and encourages them to try new foods that they grow themselves. So many kids think their food comes directly from a grocery store and not a farm."

Hammond uses what funds she can to purchase all the district ground beef from Crystal River Farms, and she uses whatever money she has to go through the Delicious Orchards company in Hotchkiss for local seasonal fruits and vegetables.

"All the government funding we receive in the district goes towards purchasing fresh produce," Hammond said. "We also receive USDA entitlement funds that has to be used to buy from a USDA provided vendor. Right now about 60 percent of our produce is fresh and the rest frozen.

"It would be wonderful if we could get a large warehouse-type space for storing foods. We could purchase more fresh foods in season and freeze it ourselves. There's a lot you can do with fresh-frozen tomatoes, like sauces, soups and much more."

The Aspen School District does not participate in the USDA program, although Tenille Folk, the chef for the Aspen elementary and middle schools, uses local products as much as possible in the foods she prepares.

Concannon wants to hear the issues that districts like the Roaring Fork face and do his best to address them all. If any action will reduce the amount of processed foods kids eat and get them into fresh foods, Concannon will likely support it.

"Raising awareness in our students and parents is paramount," Concannon said. "If kids can get a hands-on experience, learn about fresh foods and have fun doing it, that's the direction we'd like to see this program go."

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