Eating for the economy

Farm to school initiative seeks to support local farmers

Saranac Lake Central School Food Service Director Ruth Pino, left, Farm to School Coordinator Zohar Gitlis, center, and Shannon Bartholomew pose with locally harvested vegetables for the school. (Photo provided)

SARANAC LAKE — On the brink of making the Farm to School initiative a community economic force, a group of educators, farmers and nutritionists are looking for a way to keep the momentum going.

The program teaches local kids where their food comes from, while encouraging healthy eating from local food sources.

Zohar Gitlis, the Farm to School coordinator for the Saranac Lake Central School District, spoke to the school board about the program’s successes. Gitlis was hired less than two years ago when the F2T initiative gained a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to pay for her position. Since then, Saranac Lake students have gone on field trips to local farms, participated in gardening and harvesting produce from the school garden plot, and feasted at annual local food dinners. Eighth-graders this year will plant a fall garden, and produce a harvest dinner.

During one dinner the students helped prepare, Gitlis said, they ran out of salad dressing — but that didn’t stop students coming back for more.

“That kids wanted second giant helpings of salad, with no dressing on it, was kind of wonderful for me,” Gitlis said, placing her hand on her heart. Since the kids had a hand in growing and harvesting the food, they enjoyed eating it.

Saranac Lake Central School Food Service Director Ruth Pino, left, talks with students in the culinary arts program at FEH-BOCES. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

SLCS food service director Ruth Pino gives Gitlis a lot of credit for getting the kids excited about getting local food in the cafeteria. A recent decision to serve fresh corn on the cob, for instance, required that about 200 ears of corn be shucked, fast.

Gitlis got the kids competing to see who could shuck the fastest; the winners are posted on the Adirondack Farm to School Facebook page.

“Two hundred ears of corn were shucked in two lunch periods,” said Pino. “It was amazing.”

Gitlis’s position is both part-time and temporary, but the food educator has big plans. She’d like to have the school district spend some of its cafeteria dollars on local farms.

“I’m dreaming big,” Gitlis told the school board on Sept. 20. “The goal of all this is to open up the market and be an economic driver as well.”

She wants to start with one locally grown item a month, that all the schools pool resources to buy.

“We’re trying to build market share and purchasing power, which our schools don’t really have,” she said. “When I go behind the scenes and deal with the logistics of aggregated purchasing, it’s really quite complicated.”

Pino explained that food service directors are required to go through a USDA bidding process, which means paperwork for farmers.

“So, you can’t just buy 20 pounds of carrots from a farmer. It’s not worth it to them,” Gitlis said.

However, plans are on track to buy beets in October from local farms, which will then show up in the school cafeterias.

As far as healthy food in school goes, Saranac Lake is slightly ahead of the curve. Pino, a former culinary arts instructor at Paul Smith’s College, had already begun adapting the cafeteria menu at SLCS when the Hunger-Free Healthy Kids program was rolled out in 2010 by the federal government. Now she’d like the school to continue leading other districts by achieving the “Drive for 25.”

Back in 2013, she explained, the Farm to School Initiative aimed for 15 percent of cafeteria food to be from local sources by 2015. That has been done. The new goal is 25 percent, which could have the added effect of increasing state reimbursement to the district’s food service program.

“If schools spent 25 percent of their food dollars on New York State products, then New York would increase their reimbursement rate per meal,” Pino said. The Adirondack North Country Association has begun a pilot program of the Drive for 25 plan in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, which aims to establish how such program would work as a broader initiative in the state.

“The more money stays in New York state, the better,” Pino said.

Meanwhile, in Saranac Lake, the search is on for another grant. Pino is hoping the grant will support the farm to school coordinator position until permanent funding can be established, perhaps shared between the district and Franklin Essex Hamilton-BOCES district.

“We want to sustain the culture we’ve created,” Gitlis said, “making sure it stays beyond these short bursts of energy and funding.”


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