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Farmers find it’s hard to get produce into schools

Last winter, Vashon farmer Joe Yarkin sold $40 of sunchokes to the Vashon Island School District, the beginning, many thought, of a farm-to-school program that would build on the district’s popular makeover of its lunch program.

Since then, Vashon growers say, they’ve taken several steps to bring the farm-to-school program to fruition. They secured $10,000 in grants to support the effort, formed a new growers cooperative called Vashon Island Producers Co-Op, or VIPCO, and purchased a $1 million insurance policy to cover liability. Some have also begun to develop food safety programs appropriate to their small-scale growing operations.

But no produce — short of those tubers from the Yarkin farm — has made it to the district’s three cafeterias.

The reason is that the school district is also requiring that farmers’ food safety programs get certified by a  third-party — an independent professional, in other words, who can look at the farmers’ safety plans, walk their land and declare their operations safe.

Both Tom French, the Whidbey Island-based chef the district hired to remake the school lunch program, and Superintendent Michael Soltman say the requirement makes sense. “It’s pretty common in the industry,” French said of the third-party certification requirement.

But some farmers say French is overstating the need by calling it a government requirement, not one of the district’s own choosing. In the October issue of “Soundings,” the school district’s newsletter, French is quoted as saying that the farm-to-school effort is going slowly on Vashon in part because “the typical small grower can’t possibly meet government regulations required for school food programs.”

Others, however, say there aren’t any government regulations for fruits and vegetables sold to schools — only those that district administrators decide to put into place.

“Fruit and vegetable growers are not required to have any licensing or certification for their food,” said Tricia Kovacs, an outreach and education specialist in food safety for the Washington State Department of Agriculture and the former director of the state’s farm-to-school program. “All of the food certification at this stage is voluntary and buyer-driven.”

What’s more, some farmers say, Vashon’s requirement is not the norm among districts in the state.

“Nobody I know of except Vashon is requiring third-party certification,” said Merrilee Runyan, president of the Vashon Island Growers Association. “It’s completely up to the school district. There’s nobody that says you have to do this.”

Rita Ordonez, who coordinates the Fresh Food in Schools program for the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network in Mount Vernon, which has a grant to set up 20 farm-to-school programs in the state, concurred.

“Food safety is definitely a topic of interest for school districts. But there’s no regulation that the state has or that the school districts have to have in place,” she said.

Some Vashon farmers are frustrated with the district’s requirement, noting that it’s coming from French, a food professional known for his zealous and sometimes hard-charging style.

“I think he just doesn’t want to deal with us. He’s putting up roadblocks,” said Leda Langley, a Vashon farmer who routinely sells produce to Thriftway even though her farm doesn’t have a food safety plan or third-party certification.

The district’s barriers, she added, are significant. “You have to have a ridiculous amount of cooler space. It’s not possible,” she said. “From what I understand, there are schools all over the state doing neat stuff. … On Vashon, it’s gone nowhere.”

Mark Musick, an agricultural expert who helped to organize a daylong food safety meeting between French and a dozen or so Vashon farmers last spring, also expressed frustration with the process.

“To say it’s the government’s requirement is obfuscation,” Musick said. The process with French, he added, “has been confusing. The ground rules keep changing.”

French, in an email, defended the district’s decision to require third-party certification, noting that he made it clear in meetings with farmers from the start that food safety was a top priority for the district. As a parent and food professional, he added, “I would expect no less.”

French runs the Experience Food Project, a nonprofit organization based in Langley that is attempting to change the nature of school lunch programs. “It should also be noted that schools we work with purchase thousands of pounds of local and regionally grown produce from suppliers who meet our standards,” he said in the email.

French included links in his email to news articles about food safety; he did not, however, say what laws he was referring to in the article that ran in “Soundings,” adding, only, “A good starting point would be to review King County Health Department’s basic requirements.”

Soltman, who serves on the board of French’s nonprofit, said he supports the requirement that Vashon farmers get a third party to certify the safety of their food. Noting the recent listeria outbreak that killed 29 people who consumed tainted cantaloupes, Soltman said such safety requirements are important, even if they seem extreme to some farmers. The district’s insurance risk pool, he added, is beginning to identify food safety as an important issue for districts to address.

“We want some assurance that we won’t have cross-contamination and end up with kids getting really sick. … There’s just a higher risk when you work with local farmers and local produce,” Soltman said.

Soltman also defended French’s role, noting how quickly he overhauled Vashon’s money-losing school lunch program, transforming it into one that’s far healthier and poised to break even this year. French’s one-year contract with the district, for which he was paid $34,000, ended in June.

“I think a change agent like Tom … rubs up against people,” Soltman said. “He pushes hard. He’s ruffled some feathers over time. But I look at the evidence and change that has occurred here; we’ve done something in a few weeks that could have taken months or even years.”

Other farmers, meanwhile, say there’s value in the process French and the Vashon school district are making farmers undertake. While third-party certification is not a requirement at this point, such regulations are likely “coming down the pike,” said Celina Yarkin, who runs Sun Island Farm with her husband Joe.

Yarkin, like other farmers on Vashon, is frustrated that the process has been slow. But it’s not completely the district’s fault, she noted.

“Part of it is the season,” she said. “Our growing season is exactly opposite of the school’s seasons. When we’re really cranking out produce, the schools are closed.”

There’s also the issue of price — according to Yarkin, “that’s the hardest one.” Farmers on Vashon mostly sell their produce at retail prices, at both the Vashon Farmers Market and their farm stands. But the district needs to purchase food at wholesale prices, a high hurdle for Vashon’s small, family-run farms to overcome.

Still, the Yarkins, who have three young children, say they’re optimistic farmers will eventually get their produce into the school district’s cafeterias. And like others involved with VIPCO, the new farmers’ cooperative, they’re encouraged by the way farmers on Vashon are beginning to collaborate.

“I’m starting to work with other farmers in a way I never ever have here. And I love that,” Celina Yarkin said.

“The whole mood at VIGA (the Vashon Island Growers Association) has just radically shifted,” she added. “We’re having a lot more conversations.”

Greg Reed, who works for Island Meadow Farm, another member of VIPCO, said he applauds the school district for making the effort to bring local produce to the table.

“It’s a cumbersome process, for sure,” Reed said. “But my opinion — food safety is of the utmost importance. … I think it’s great that the school is even trying.”

 

 

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