By Sarah Hall
If you had your choice between a fresh-from-the-orchard New York apple and a mealy, out-of-state pick to go on your lunch tray, which would you choose?
The answer seems pretty clear. That’s why the Liverpool Central School District, from September to early November, when apples are in season, provides apples from Long Point Orchards in Aurora with its lunches at least once a week for students in all grade levels.
“On our menu we indicate that students are getting a New York state apple,” said LCSD Food Services Director Annette Marchbanks. “We also receive organic, hydroponically grown green Boston and red leaf lettuce from Paul’s Nursery in Fulton. We use this lettuce for our daily side salads and entree salads that we serve in our high school only.”
The produce is provided as part of the Farm to School program, which Liverpool joined this school year. The state launched the initiative in late 2015 to better connect New York state’s plethora of locally grown and locally sourced foods with its schools to, according to the New York State Department of Agriculture, “strengthen local agriculture, improve student health, and promote regional food systems awareness.” The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The NYSDA distributes the grants with support from other state agencies, including the Office of General Services, Department of Health, Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Education.
While Liverpool just joined the initiative in the 2016-17 school year, it’s not the only local school to take part. Other Central New York school districts participating with the program include Baldwinsville, Fabius-Pompey, Jamesville-DeWitt, Jordan-Elbridge, Marcellus, North Syracuse, Phoenix, Skaneateles and the Syracuse city schools.
The Farm to School grant program was first announced after Gov. Andrew Cuomo spent a day in June of 2015 in Rochester as part of his Capital for a Day program. During his visits with community members and local officials, Cuomo said he and his staff learned of the need to make it easier to bring together school districts’ purchasing and New York’s vast array of agricultural products. In discussions with state officials and agricultural leaders, as well as the USDA, the state created the Farm to School program, which solves that problem, as well as providing nutritious, local food for students.
“Learning healthy eating habits now will serve our children for their entire lives,” Cuomo said in a release. “The Farm to School initiative encourages thoughtfulness about what we eat and leads to better choices when it comes to nutrition. This program simultaneously educates our youth, promotes locally grown foods, and strengthens the connection between farms and schools across the state.”
According to Marchbanks, the program is funded entirely by government money, so it doesn’t cost the district anything extra.
“Annually, the government gives every school district ‘commodity dollars.’ The amount that a school district receives is based on the number of meals that were served the year before,” she said. “These dollars can be used to purchase commodity foods like ground beef, turkey, canned fruits and frozen vegetables. We are also able to set aside some of the money to be used for the Farm to School Program.”
The produce purchased through the program is more expensive than what Marchbanks can get from another vendor, so she has to be judicious in how she uses it. That’s why the lettuce is only used for salads at the high school.
“It does take away from how much money I have left for the other foods that I can purchase and that I need, so although I consider this produce superior, I have to limit where I serve it due to cost,” she said.
Marchbanks also said it was unlikely the Farm to School program could provide enough produce for an entire meal program.
“I am not sure if an independent farmer could actually supply an entire district — perhaps my size district, but I wouldn’t think they could serve a district as large as Syracuse City, perhaps,” she said.
Though it’s costlier, using local produce does provide a tangible benefit to the students, Marchbanks said. In addition to being organically grown and of higher quality, the local fruits and veggies just look so much healthier than the other produce the school provides.
“This lettuce is so green! I look at it and all I can think of is Ireland!” Marchbanks said. “Somehow, in my mind, I think because the color is so vibrant it may hold more nutrients. Mind you, that is my opinion, not a fact.”