Farm to Cafeteria conference brings buyers, sellers to table

BLYN — The message of the first North Olympic Peninsula Farm to The Cafeteria Conference on Thursday was that the farmer and the food buyer should be friends.

And it takes effort on both sides.

“When you’re dealing with farmers, you have to change the way you think,” said Paul Flock, food service director of the Olympic School District, on a video showcasing a successful farm-to-school program, in which local food was provided to public school students.

Peninsula-wide event

That comment drew laughter from farmers from Clallam and Jefferson counties who attended the conference at the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Center in Blyn.

The conference drew a full house of 150 people, including elected officials, school board members, school district administrators and staff, food service directors from schools and hospitals, public health officials and farmers from across the Peninsula.

Keynote speaker Mary Selecky, secretary of the state Department of Health, opened her presentation by emptying her pockets and putting the contents on the lectern: an apple, a pear, a carrot, a packaged condom and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

“I’m your all-purpose, prepared secretary,” she said.

Farm-to-school programs

Farm to school programs are a win-win situation, Selecky said, citing a priority recommendation in the state’s Healthy Communities initiative supporting farm-to-institutional food programs.

“The research and data says you should do it,” she said, referring to the link between healthy eating and academic success.

“The question is how to get it done.”

Bill Evans, former superintendent of the Lopez Island School District answered that question.

He spoke about how the Lopez district, which has 250 students, changed from relying on off-island suppliers for school lunches to local sources.

The steps: after applying for a grant detailing what it wanted to do, the district institutionalized the plan by hiring a farm-to-school coordinator, provided training for staff and cooks, publicized the project in the community and figured out to pay for it, as the grant wasn’t approved.

By buying local beef and produce, and using vegetables grown in the school garden, the district has almost entirely eliminated purchases of commercially-processed food, he said.

“The last time I saw a chicken nugget was the fall of ’05,” Evans said.

Also speaking at the conference was Tricia Sexton-Kovacs, state Department of Agriculture Farm-to-School program coordinator.

Overcoming barriers

Afterward, Sexton-Kovacs answered questions at a focus session between farmers and food service buyers that dealt with barriers the two groups have to overcome.

“I think this conference has given everybody a better idea of what the issues are,” said John Koch, food service director for the Port Angeles School District.

Stacey Sobell Williams of Ecotrust, the lead agency for the National Farm to School Network, reported on the organization’s evaluation of farm-to-school cafeteria programs in the Portland Public Schools and the smaller Gervais School District.

Small-scale efforts, such as featuring a locally-grown fruit or vegetable once a month, offering occasional “Local Lunches” where everything on the plate is locally grown, or highlighting local flavors on the menu are one way to start, Williams said.

“Once you start something going, it will start to grow,” Williams said.

“Talk about your success and build your network.”

Candice Cosler, Jefferson County school garden coordinator, showed a film she made of the Olympic School District’s school lunch program, showing how local produce and bakery products are incorporated into the menus.

By starting small, monitoring costs, reducing use of disposable dinnerware and eliminating desserts and low-nutrition items, the district’s food service actually came in under budget last year, according to the director, Paul Flock.

Olympia Community Action Programs’ senior nutrition staff prepared lunch using locally-grown vegetables and bread from local bakeries.

The conference, which was free to participants, was sponsored by the North Olympic Resource Conservation and Development Committee and the Port Angeles School District’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Advisory Committee.

For more information, see farmtocafnow@yahoo.com.

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Port Townsend/Jefferson County reporter-columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at jjackson@olypen.com.

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