SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Roasted tomato soup is on the menu at Saratoga Springs High School, and the tomatoes come from down the street.
After they ripen on the vines at Pitney Meadows Community Farm, the fresh tomatoes are picked, washed and delivered to the school less than a half-mile away. There the school’s kitchen staff cores, roasts and freezes the tomatoes. Once the rotating school lunch menu circles back around to the tomatoes soup, the cooks can unpack the frozen produce and cook up a batch of soup.
Cucumbers, lettuce greens, sweet potatoes, fall and winter squashes and other fresh produce have all made a similar trip in recent weeks or will do so in the coming weeks as the school district, working closely with the young community farm, looks to ramp up its use of locally-grown produce. The district is starting to tally the local deliveries by the hundreds of pounds, moving into the thousands of pounds. Margaret Sullivan, the district's food program director, said she expects the district’s use of fresh, local produce to grow by about 90 percent this school year as they work under a new two-year state farm-to-school grant.
“Over the next couple of years, it will continue to increase, greatly,” Sullivan said last week.
The farm-to-school grant worth around $36,000 over two years has brought Saratoga schools together with Pitney farm and the Cornell Cooperative Extension to expand the capacity of district and farm alike to increase the volume of fresh produce making its way to students' plates. The grant also funds an expansion of educational resources and opportunities to teach students about the importance of buying and eating local food.
The fresh and local products are starting to replace produce purchased off the docks in Albany, shipped in from far afield, or less nutritious and flavorful canned versions or products trucked around the country by massive distribution companies. But as Saratoga schools and Pitney farm look to expand the fresh produce pipeline, and bring more districts along, the challenges are as varied as complicated regulatory systems and finicky soils.
The farm-to-school grant has helped both the district and the farm expand their capacity to clean, process and store thousands of pounds of fresh produce. The farm recently installed a new wash and pack station in its central barn; the station is equipped with a heating room for curing potatoes and two coolers for storing other produce.
“The biggest challenge is the volume,” said Kevin London, a Saratoga-based chef and food consultant, who along with his wife, Kim, a Pitney board member, has advocated for the local food expansion.
Earlier this month, London helped lead a training of Saratoga schools kitchen staff about processing more fresh produce. London said he thinks the program has the potential to grow to a major share of the district’s food program.
“I think the potential is massive,” London said. “It’s an obvious win-win for nutritional reason and supports both the school and farm.”
The district, farm and Cornell Cooperative Extension hope to win another grant and continue to expand the relationship. In time, the farm hopes to produce food for other districts as well. Diane Whitten, a food and nutrition educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension, said a group of partners in the current effort are already preparing a proposal for a new grant to expand educational programming, bring in more schools and add more processing equipment.
“As time goes on and we communicate about [Saratoga’s] needs, we can grow to their volume,” said Aliza Pickering, vegetable manager and primary farmer at Pitney.
The farm, which is now at the tail end of its first growing season, cultivated fewer than five acres this season. Those plantings are also serving the farm’s other community programs: a weekly pick-your-own and a “give back garden” that provides produce to Franklin Community Center and local senior centers.
While recent changes to state law gives districts access to an enhanced meal reimbursement rate for using items sourced from New York, the 30-percent threshold is still hard to reach even for districts like Saratoga Spings that are ramping up local sourcing, Sullivan said.
Even just the school calendar complicates the ability to maximize the use of Pitney’s latest harvest. The tomatoes start to fall off the vine before students return to school. But Sullivan said she hopes to find a way to have cafeteria staff work at times next summer to get a head start on processing fresh produce as its ready to harvest.
Pickering said she thinks in the long run it’s possible to supply the district with far more of its produce needs.
“It’s possible to grow that much,” Pickering said. “It’s figuring out how to do it efficiently.”
Taking a break from picking paste tomatoes for the school last week, Pickering discussed lessons she learned during the first growing season – the farm’s soil needs constant irrigation – and the benefit of local produce – it’s tastier and healthier.
“I think kids’ brains develop better when they have nutritious meals,” Pickering said. “Locally-grown food has more nutrients than food shipped far or held long.”
It’s also good for the community, she said.
“The dollars aren’t just going off to big corporations who move a ton of food around, but it stays in the community,” she said.
“I think the kids get it,” she added.
An outside classroom
The farm-to-school advocates are also looking to set up a school-to-farm pipeline, bringing teachers and students to the farm to learn about everything from agriculture to business to biology. Saratoga runners are already using trails along the farm’s wooded perimeter, trails that will soon open to the public.
Students from all six Saratoga Springs elementary schools are slated to visit the farm this fall. And Jody Terry, a former Saratoga teacher and chairperson of Pitney’s education and programs committee, said she is trying to get teachers to visit the farm to start envisioning how they can use it in their classes.
On Saturday, Pitney Farm unveiled its new children’s greenhouse, which will be dedicated to educational programs for children.
“We’re right across the street,” Terry said.
Volunteers from Pitney and Cornell plan to visit Saratoga schools monthly for a harvest of the month display in the cafeteria, giving students a taste of something seasonal and a chance to talk about the farm and where their lunch food comes from. London, the chef who has been working with the district, said it's good to see educational programming start in the cafeteria. Last week, the harvest of the month highlighted a fresh cucumber and tomato salad, with a dressing made in the school kitchen.
“The idea of driving that into the curriculum is beginning in the cafeteria,” London said. “That lends so much more credibility.”
Many of the students shied away from the fresh cucumbers, looking but not venturing over to take a sample. But others headed straight for the fresh food or wandered over inquisitively. Terry loaded up a tray of samples and headed out to make deliveries directly to hordes of lunching students.
“It tastes fresh, it tastes natural, it’s best that way,” said ninth-grader Blake Taylor after finishing off his sample.
A few minutes later he grabbed a second helping.