Locally grown food is making its way into Maine schools.
The state Department of Education launched the Maine Harvest of the Month program this school year, an initiative to add Maine-grown produce and food into school lunch menus give students access to better quality food with fresher ingredients.
“We are hoping it improves the perception of school meals because it is a great way to showcase what is happening in school meals across the state,” said Stephanie Stambach Child Nutrition Consultant for the DOE. “It is important to support local and to support farmers and growers in our state.”
A marketing campaign designed to increase the use of school meal participation, the program will guide schools in incorporating local foods onto its menu and give an economic boost to supplying farmers.
“The more you support your local farmer, the more they can keep your food coming on the table and the more it helps nutrition and to keep your local businesses,” said Tammy Kelley, who co-owns Kelley Brothers Farm in Pittston with her husband, Pete Kelley.
The farm, which has been family owned since the 1800s, raises and sells grass-fed Angus beef, and most of its business comes from selling at the Bath farmers markets and in its farm store.
The farm has not sold to schools before, and Kelley said she has not yet been contacted about supplying one, but she hopes that her farm’s meat can provide a healthier alternative than beef that may be being served already.
Emery Farm, which has been in business for about a decade, has been supplying schools for around five years. Trent Emery, who owns and runs the farm, said he delivers to schools in the districts of Winthrop, Gardiner, Kennebec Intra-Schools Regional School Districts 2 and Maranacook Area Schools RSU 38.
“Having the local product in the schools furthers the awareness for staff and students of what is available in your backyard,” Emery said.
As a result of the Harvest of the Month program, Emery said he’s now supplying to schools in RSU 4, the Oak Hill school district, and RSU 12, Sheepscot Valley district.
Stambach said that schools that enter Harvest of the Month must offer the featured monthly product at least two times during the month.
“We kept the categories broad so school nutrition directors have flexibility in what they want to offer on the menu,” said Stambach.
November’s featured product is brassica, a family of plants that include broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. December will be winter squash.
“The activity itself has helped us look at one ingredient at a time rather than a whole list, which can be overwhelming,” said Michael Flynn, the food services director of Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit 12.
Eventually, Flynn said he can piggyback off that one item by adding a second and then a third.
Reactions from families in his district have been good so far, he said.
“Families are already more interested in sending kids to our lunch program because of fresh harvest,” Flynn said.
As a certified chef, Flynn said that food grown locally has a better flavor profile because the product is fresher because it has not traveled far.
“On the community spectrum of local foods in the system, it normalizes the relationship (between the farmer and school),” Emery said. “A lot of farms are in an attainable distance.”
Stambach said schools participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Child Nutrition Programs are required to buy American and must purchase domestic commodities or products within the United States.
Schools that participate in HOM, she said, can be reimbursed for produce through the DOE’s Local Produce Fund, Stambach said. For every $3 spent on local produce, $1 can be reimbursed.
“Each school determines who they purchase their food from,” she said.
Producers may be listed in the program simply by signing up on the HOM website, Stambach said, where they must list information about the farm and what products it can offer.
It is up to the school to determine from whom they will source, Stambach said, and to vet the farmer.
She said DOE provides a sample food safety checklist with suggested questions that nutrition directors can ask prospective farmers.
“We always tell (schools): ‘Know your food. Know your farmer,’” Stambach said.
Sample questions address important issues, including hygiene of the food handler and manure storage, if there are animals on the farm. Schools and farmer must also work out delivery details.
Stambach said students get excited about food that is coming from farms in their neighborhoods, and that enthusiasm could mean learning opportunities when students can visit the farms supplying their foods — if the districts and farmers seek such connections.
Emery said his farm offers educational tours and immersion experiences.
“It is a nice way for kids to engage and get exposed to different foods,” he said. “Relationships are one of the key ingredients to small business and the business of farming.”
Stambach said 183 schools from 35 school districts are participating this year, and the program is not limited to public schools. Participation is voluntary and there are no eligibility requirements.
The annual Farm to School Cook-off to be held in the spring will align with the March Harvest of the Month, which is “local proteins,” according to Stambach.
“A lot of school food service staff take pride in the meals they prepare,” Stambach said, “and they take pride in the meals in this program.”
See the original story at https://www.centralmaine.com/2019/11/03/harvest-of-the-month-program-gets-local-food-into-schools/