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School cafeterias hope to serve locally grown food

Joe Yarkin recently sold sunchokes to the schools. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Joe Yarkin recently sold sunchokes to the schools.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

The Vashon Island School District is working with the Vashon Island Growers Association (VIGA) to develop a program to bring locally grown fruits and vegetables into the district’s three cafeterias.

The effort is part of the district’s wholesale makeover of its school lunch program, which it launched at the beginning of the current school year. With the new program picking up speed, the district and its fresh food guru Tom French are now ready to take the next step and develop a relationship with a handful of Island farmers.

The goal, French added, is not only to get local produce into Vashon’s three public schools, but also to strengthen Vashon’s farm community by creating a larger and more stable market for its produce.

“It’s a stimulus, if you will, for small farmers,” he said.

The effort is already garnering support from some farmers. Joe Yarkin, owner of Sun Island Farms on Maury Island, said he and his family are excited to participate in the new program; just recently, he said, he sold 20 pounds of sunchokes to the school district.

Because the district expects a wholesale price, Island farmers likely won’t make much money from the program, he said. But he believes it will help to build a market for local growers on Vashon — a move that could ultimately bring more customers to Vashon’s Farmers Market and area farm stands, he said.

“I see it as all of us working together to show the viability of vegetable growing on the Island,” Yarkin said.

The farm-to-school program is happening with the help of two grants totaling $10,000 — one that the district received from Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm that specializes in food safety, and another that VIGA received from an anonymous donor. The money will enable the district and Vashon’s farm community to develop the protocols for a model food safety program and begin to build the capacity farmers will need to work efficiently and cooperatively on a larger scale. The hope, French added, is to develop a program that can be replicated in other school districts.

“We’re putting the infrastructure in place that will give the schools the benchmarks they need to implement a small-grower program, and we’re piloting this on Vashon,” said French, who heads a nonprofit called the Experience Food Project.

But exactly how this will happen is far from certain, those involved in the effort acknowledge. No system currently exists for a food safety verification program applicable to small-scale farming. And the Washington State Agriculture Department, French said, is unwilling to take on such an effort. “So it’s incumbent on the school districts to do this,” he said.

Mark Musick, an Islander who’s been at the forefront of the organic food movement for the past 30 years, is working with VIGA to organize the effort. Like French, he noted that they’re charting new territory: “We’re inventing this as we go,” he said.

VIGA will help farmers figure out what Musick called the “huge challenge” of dealing with food safety protocols developed for large-scale commercial farms.

“Our goal,” he added, “is to develop a set of criteria that are compatible with standards established by the USDA, that meet the needs of the school district and that are appropriate for small, owner-operated farms. It’s an act of faith that we can actually do this.”

Musick and Merrilee Runyan, who chairs the VIGA board, will begin meeting with farmers over the next several weeks, culminating in a daylong workshop on March 4, where they’ll discuss food safety protocols, liability insurance and other issues necessary to bring the program to fruition.

The response has been good, Musick said. More than 20 farmers expressed an interest in the program, with 12 submitting a letter of intent.

VIGA and the participating farmers will have many issues to sort out. Farmers, for instance, will likely have to form some sort of growers cooperative, so that the district can work with one entity when buying fruits or vegetables, Musick said. They may also want to pool resources to develop a cold-wash processing site and other shared facilities, French said.

But even with daunting details of creating a program from the ground up, those involved with the effort are thrilled to be helping the Vashon school district — and possibly others — figure out how to make the farm-to-school concept a reality.

“We’re going to learn by doing,” Musick said.

Yarkin, who has two daughters in the public school system and a third one on the way, said he’s pleased to see students already eating healthier foods at school each day.

“We thought all kids wanted were desserts and fast foods. It turns out they really like whole foods cooked fresh and local,” Yarkin said.

“The district,” he added, “buys a lot of Washington state food. We just want to get a cut of that market.”

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