Kids eat healthy and taste new foods through Harvest of the Month program at CCS

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CLINTON — From Zucchini Parmesan and Halloween Beans to roasted cauliflower and Asian Cabbage Slaw, pupils at Clinton Elementary School are learning to appreciate healthy new foods by tasting special treats made from vegetables and produce that come from local farms.

The Clinton Central School Parent Teacher Association’s Farm to School Committee, working with Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES Food Service and the Mohawk Valley Farm to School Initiative, has launched a new Harvest of the Month sampling program.

Harvest of the Month is a Farm to School initiative that promotes a seasonal, locally grown item each month. A day or two before the Harvest of the Month is listed on the menu each month, the elementary school kitchen staff will prepare a batch of the menu item for volunteers to serve samples to students in the cafeteria. The idea is to encourage the students to try something new and maybe even choose it for lunch later in the week.

“The Farm to School on a whole, and specifically the Harvest of the Month program, is to showcase some of the amazing foods that are grown and produced right here in the Mohawk Valley,” said Registered Dietician Kathleen P. Dorr, assistant school lunch director for OHM BOCES. “We want school lunch to be a forum to introduce students to healthy eating habits and an opportunity to strengthen the local agricultural economy.”

All of the OHM BOCES Food Service Schools — CCS, Westmoreland, Oriskany, Sauquoit, New Hartford, Waterville, New York Mills, Vernon-Verona-Sherrill, Remsen, Whitesboro, Frankfort-Schuyler, Herkimer, Mount Markham, Owen D. Young, Poland and Richfield Springs — are participating on varying levels, Dorr explained. Waterville and V-V-S has a full-time shared Farm to School coordinator, while Whitesboro has a Wellness Committee that is just starting to embrace FTS.

“The Clinton PTA group has been truly amazing in embracing and spearheading some of the Farm to School projects in their district,” Dorr said. “All of those districts mentioned have Harvest of the Month items featured on the lunch menus, but Clinton is unique in that a parent-lead group is organizing and distributing samples of the harvest item and recipe in the cafeteria one-a-month.”

Some of Farm to School’s close partners, past and present, are either farmers, producers or distributors. They include: Irish Bee Honey and the Empire State Honey Producers Association, Common Thread Farm, Upstate Growers and Packers, Cascun Farm, Pryputniewicz Farm, V-V-S Future Farmers of America, Radicle Green Farm, Stoltzfus Dairy, van Lieshout Dairy, Curtin Dairy, Cuba Cheese Shoppe, New York Custom Processing, Chobani, Smith Packing, Carlo Masi Sons and Daughter, Byrne Dairy, North Star Orchards, Zennyll Farms, Gianforte Farms and Empie’s Orchard.

In Clinton, and in several other area school districts, samples are prepared by elementary kitchen staff, lead by manager Debbie Roberts.  Most of the recipes used to prepare a dish made from the local produce come from the cookbook, “New School Cuisine,” which can be found at: https://vermontfarmtoschool.org/resources/new-school-cuisine-cookbook-nutritious-and-seasonal-recipes-school-cooks-school-cooks.

“Many of our managers and staff attended a Farm to School Culinary training this past summer put on by Cornell Cooperative Extension Oneida County and funded by a state Agriculture and Markets Farm to School grant where they learned each of the Harvest of the Month recipes,” Dorr said.

OHM BOCES, along with regional partners from Oneida County CCE, Waterville CSD, Madison-Oneida BOCES, V-V-S FFA and Food Service have been dabbling in FTS for more than 10 years, but have really ramped up efforts in the past five years with grants from the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, and two rounds of grant funding from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. Clinton’s PTA FTS Committee and the Harvest of the Month Sampling program was organized and began this school year.

“So far, the program has been a big success and the kids love getting samples,” said Laura Wileczka of the CCS PTA. “Many of the kids are surprised to find out that they like a healthy food they’ve never tried before. We’ve had lots of support from the kitchen staff, parent volunteers, and volunteers from Cornell Cooperative Extension.”

Jake Perrin, Cornell Cooperative Extension Farm to School marketing coordinator, said the program not only teaches children to eat healthy, but it also helps to promote the idea of buying local and supporting area farmers.

“I’ve been told, ‘A kid won’t eat that,’ and surprise, the kids actually like it, and want more,” Perrin said.

By integrating fruits and vegetables into kids’ school day, it benefits children now and in the future, added the marketing coordinator. And at the same time, it helps the farming industry.

As marketing development specialist, Perrin said sometimes there’s obstacles to overcome when it comes to getting local products in the door (of schools), including a lack of funding. He said school districts are limited on what they can spend on their lunch programs, that are subject to intense audits and rigorous reviews. There’s also a concern that if children don’t eat all the produce that comes in, then there’s a waste.

But Perrin said Farm to School is actually helping to build friendships and is growing partnerships between local schools and farmers. Recently he packed his vehicle with about 450 pounds of cabbage that he picked up and then dropped off to area schools, including Clinton for the district’s Asian Slaw day. And some farmers are personally delivering their produce to schools, he said.

“Agriculture in New York state is a massive industry, and we’re moving closer to getting more local food into our schools and money spent on products grown locally,” Perrin said.

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