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School children feast on farm fresh food

Harvest veggie pasta was a hit at Chautauqua Elementary School. Students (from left to right) Emily Milbrath, Makena DeFaccio, Hannah Johns, Rebecca McGinnis and Victoria Trujillo enjoy the fresh fare. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Harvest veggie pasta was a hit at Chautauqua Elementary School. Students (from left to right) Emily Milbrath, Makena DeFaccio, Hannah Johns, Rebecca McGinnis and Victoria Trujillo enjoy the fresh fare.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Last Tuesday, the lunch ladies at Chautauqua happily heaped hot lunch plates with harvest veggie pasta — whole wheat spirals tossed with green beans, carrots, broccoli, squash and parmesan and mozzarella cheese.

What was unusual about the entree was that most of its ingredients were grown less than a mile away, at Vashon High School’s organic food garden just south of the school campus.

For the first time this year, the school district’s horticulture and food service programs are collaborating to regularly bring farm-fresh produce to the plates of Island students.

The high school’s food garden is a decade old, and the idea of public school students eating fresh, local foods is even older — but the partnership in Vashon’s schools has only truly taken off this fall.

Last week’s harvest pasta was only one of several hot lunch menu items at Vashon’s schools that have featured incredibly local ingredients. Broccoli salad and mixed vegetables have also been offered up to the Island’s 1,500 public school students. Lettuce, spinach and other fresh vegetables have also made their way from the high school garden to the plates of Island kids.

“We’ve been getting fresh things every day,” said Claudia Campbell, the schools’ food service director.

Students at Chautauqua showed their appreciation of the cheesy, colorful pasta dish last week, many of them by gobbling up every bite of the healthy but tasty entrée.

“Yummy broccoli,” said first-grader Kristiauna Williamson as she enthusiastically chomped on a bite of the brassica.

She’s one of a growing number of students nationwide who are reaping the benefits of the “farm to school” movement, whereby school systems purchase fresh foods from farmers and retailers nearby and educate their students about where their food comes from.

Olympia School District, for example, offers an organic salad bar in its schools, purchases produce directly from local farmers and incorporates nutritional education into its regular curricula.

Vashon’s garden-lunch partnership may be one of the most local “farm-to-school” collaborations yet, since food travels less than a mile from garden to cafeteria to stomach.

It’s not officially a part of the farm-to-school movement, since the school district neither purchases from a local farmer nor officially educates students about the benefits of eating locally. However, Chautauqua has a highly productive food garden, which is used as a outdoor classroom for biology and nutrition and cultivated by the students in the school’s multi-age first- through third-grade program. But their garden doesn’t produce the amount of vegetables that the high school garden does, and though it’s a hot commodity on the playground, Chautauqua produce hasn’t made it into school lunches.

The idea of serving fresh, local foods to Island students has been a long time in the making.

There had been community interest in introducing fresh, local ingredients into school meals before, but purchasing produce from local farmers was too expensive, said Amy Bogaard, the high school’s horticulture teacher and one of those who tried to get local produce into school lunches years ago.

Since Bogaard began teaching horticulture at the high school three years ago, the high school’s garden has been transformed into a highly productive farm-style plot of land, thanks to the inspiration of high school students and year-round hands-on work.

“The horticulture program used to be kids growing individual gardens,” she said. “But last year it was the class’s idea to grow more of a farm garden, to coordinate large rows of vegetables.”

Her class dubbed it their victory garden, and it is planted with “almost every kind of vegetable that grows in the Northwest,” Bogaard said.

In the spring, the 60-by-100-foot plot on S.W. 204th Street produced peas, kale, lettuce and spinach. Some of the garden’s bounty went to the school lunch program. And over the summer, more than 150 pounds of produce — squash, broccoli, peas, beans, beets, cucumbers, chard and lettuce — were harvested from the garden and given to the food bank.

During the summer, former horticulture teacher Mary Robinson and two students, Iris Spring and Cullen McLarty, worked in the garden, keeping it neat and productive. Robinson’s time was paid for with proceeds from a plant sale the horticulture program held in the spring; the students’ pay came from a federal career and technical education grant awarded to the school district.

During the school year, horticulture students take part in every stage of the produce’s growth, from tilling and planting to watering, nurturing and harvesting, Bogaard said.

Bogaard said she’s thrilled to see the bounty of the high school’s garden being used to feed Island students on a regular basis this fall.

“Getting healthy, local organic food into the cafeterias — that’s a huge step, a wonderful beginning and a movement in the right direction,” she said. “We want to show our kids that healthy food makes healthy people.”

Campbell said she too feels lucky to be able to cook with produce grown just a stone’s throw away from students’ lunch plates.

“It feels great on a number of different levels,” she said. “It feels good to have what the kids have grown be used in the school. It feels good to know how it’s grown. It feels good to know how it’s been handled, washed and prepared.”

Though preparing produce straight from a garden can be more work for Campbell, she said she’s glad to do it.

“It’s worth it to me to be able to offer the fresh foods,” she said.

She and Bogaard acknowledged, however, that it can be tough to break some students’ deeply engrained unhealthy eating patterns.

Last Tuesday, while Chautauqua students gobbled up their harvest pasta, high schoolers barely touched a fresh tray of blanched and steamed mixed vegetables at lunchtime, Campbell said.

But Bogaard said she’s seen some of her horticulture students undergo a transformation, from picky vegetable eaters to eager garden foragers.

“It’s fun to see the difference over the trimester, to see a kid walk in at the beginning and not care about vegetables,” she said — by the end of the trimester they’re nibbling from the garden like rabbits.

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