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USDA grant fuels farm-to-school momentum in PT

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Fresh, locally grown produce is finding its way into scratch-made school meals in Port Townsend thanks to willing farmers and visionary school district leaders.

First-year Food Service Director Stacey Larsen not only expects that trend to continue, but increase thanks to a $72,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) specifically intended to foster and expand relationships between local farmers and school kitchens.

“It's been a great year so far and this money will help us continue our efforts to provide the good food that these kids deserve,” Larsen said.

The Farm to School Program grant is one of 74 spanning 39 states, with four awarded in Washington.

“Farm to school programs work – for schools, for producers, and for communities,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “By serving nutritious and locally grown foods, engaging students in hands-on lessons, and involving parents and community members, these programs provide children with a holistic experience that sets them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.”

The North Olympic Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development Council applied for the grant on behalf of the Port Townsend School District, which will have discretion over how to use the money.

“This project has been many years in the making and this is the second time we've applied for it,” council coordinator Kate Dean told the Leader, adding that one of the council's missions is to strengthen the region's agriculture industry. “Many of our school kitchens are not equipped at all to handle whole foods. This is an investment not only in infrastructure for the district but also health and learning outcomes for kids. It will also hopefully put money in the pockets of farmers.”

Vilsack said the federal program “provides a significant and reliable market for local farmers and ranchers,” evidenced by a survey indicating schools nationwide invested nearly $600 million in local products last school year.

The district purchases seasonal produce from Red Dog Farm and Dharma Ridge Farm, both of which are USDA certified organic. Larsen said the money would help build relationships with more farms, as well as ranchers and fishermen.

“My goal is to make healthy foods that kids will eat and then incorporate as much local produce as I can,” said Larsen, who sometimes goes to Colinwood Farm in Port Townsend when she needs something fresh in a pinch, such as seasonal squash. “The farmers I've worked with so far have been overjoyed that the kids are eating their produce. As the year goes on I would like to incorporate local meats and cheeses.”

Dean said $30,000 is earmarked for new kitchen equipment, $8,000 for installation of that equipment and another $8,000 for kitchen staff training. The grant would also pay for a school garden coordinator, plus tools and supplies, as well as an AmeriCorps volunteer through the county's Washington State University Extension office.

“We wanted to have the flexibility to let the district set priorities for the funding,” Dean said, clarifying that while a chunk of the money is dedicated to equipment, Larsen and fellow district leaders will get to choose the specific appliances.

Larsen said she's begun building a wish list of equipment that could make the efforts of her kitchen staff, which she calls nutrition specialists, not only easier but more versatile. She's also eager to find ways to get students into the kitchen to learn about where their food comes from, how to plan a nutritionally balanced meal and how to prepare it.

“I think the kids are responding to this healthy food,” Larsen said. “One of our goals is to turn that high school kitchen into a teaching kitchen. I intend to do more food prep demonstrations with the kids and do taste tests and expose them to more of the variety that's coming from our backyard.”

Superintendent David Engle said much of the new equipment purchases and installation would likely not come until summer 2016, though fostering relationships with whole food producers can begin much sooner.

Engle also said the grant would prompt district leaders to take a closer look at kitchen plans for the proposed new Grant Street Elementary campus. Those students are currently being served breakfast and lunch in the school hallway due to a lack of space.

“We know from research that the more kids know about nutrition and food preparation, the better dietary habits they will have over their lifetimes,” Engle said. “We'll be looking at what we can do to beef up our garden at Grant Street and our orchard at Blue Heron. That education part is something I'm really excited about.”

Larsen said a high school garden is currently being expanded, as well. Those school gardens and orchards, she said, could soon be supplying a significant amount of the ingredients used in school meals.

For now, much of what Larsen is putting on the menu includes ingredients still unfamiliar to many students.

“Most of these kids had never had polenta before,” she said. “In November, we did polenta lasagna. I took something familiar and mixed it with something less familiar and it turns out they love polenta.”

Larsen said she plans to continue sneaking new ingredients into familiar dishes in hopes of keeping kids both healthy and intrigued.

“We're not teachers like the classroom teachers,” Larsen said of her kitchen staff, “but we can still educate. Every time we serve breakfast or lunch we have an opportunity to do that.”

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