A group of first grade students from Deer Creek School were gathered in the school lunchroom at long tables around platters of kiwi.
“These are good,” said Cayden Howard, age 6, as he dug a plastic spoon into the soft green innards of the fruit.
Like many of his classmates, this was Cayden’s first taste of kiwi. While some went for seconds and thirds, others puckered their mouths as if they had just sucked a lemon.
Live Healthy Nevada County began tastings at local schools like these in January with mandarins and plan to do the same with a different locally grown fruit or vegetable every month of the year.
The tastings expand upon a program in place at county schools called, “Harvest of the Month.”
For years, school menus have featured a Harvest of the Month food and recipe.
Now, with tastings, educators are given another way to increase awareness and access of local farm fresh produce.
“We’re buying from all local farms,” said Malaika Bishop, co-director of Live Healthy.
In preparation for tastings this spring, Mountain Bounty Farm will plant an extra one-third of an acre to grow crops for local schools.
Farmer John Tecklin said he is excited about the opportunity and the future potential for area farms to serve the relatively untapped local market of big institutions like schools and hospitals.
“I think this is a great beginning. It could be a huge market for the farmers. It’s what we want to be working toward,” he said.
In addition to the tastings, Tecklin and Suzanne Grass, director of School Nutrition Services are discussing ways to supply school meal programs with Mountain Bounty Farm produce.
The Harvest of the Month program is becoming a community collaborative effort involving schools, farms, parents and a number of interested parties from government agencies to natural food stores.
Each month, 3,600 students in kindergarten through eighth grade from 11 schools in Nevada County will participate in the program.
It’s a continuation of Live Healthy’s farm-to-school activities already taking place at area schools such as produce garden carts, field trips to local farms, guest chefs and nutrition education in the classrooms.
“The kids that I’ve encountered are pretty receptive to trying foods,” said Aleta Barrett, a local farmer and mother of two who is leading the tastings at all the grade levels at Bell Hill Academy in Grass Valley.
She was surprised when children grabbed raw beets and peppers from the garden cart and gobbled them up — raw.
Teachers and parent liaisons are given a four-page lesson plan with recipes, activities and food history to help guide them. For instance, some schools learned about fractions by eating mandarin segments.
Many of the same foods children learn about in the classroom may then be planted in school gardens, harvested at local farms or taken home from a school garden cart to further their experience.
When it appears in their school lunch, children remember the food and are more apt to eat it, said Grass.
“It kind of exposes it to them, then when it’s on the menu, they’re more familiar with it,” said Grass.
Hope on the horizon
Harvest of the Month is the next phase of a three-year, $300,000 Farm-to-School grant awarded to Live Healthy by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
A number of partner agencies are showing support for the program including Nevada County Social Services and Public Health, California Department of Food and Agriculture, UC Cooperative Extension and BriarPatch Co-op. It’s part of a unified message about healthy eating that community collaborators are coming together on.
“All these organizations are getting on board with this idea,” said Bishop.
Last year, the county’s public health and social services departments were awarded a separate $350,000 USDA grant for outreach projects such as nutrition education classes for those enrolled in the state food stamp program known as CalFresh.
In Nevada County, 3,039 households or 7,000 people receive food stamps through the CalFresh program.
“One of our goals is to increase food security… We want to increase access and consumption of healthy foods,” said Lynne Lacroix, project coordinator for Nevada County’s Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Program.
Harvest of the Month is one way to reach this target audience.
In the summer months, hundreds of low-income families could receive a voucher to purchase vegetables at area farmers markets and another to buy featured Harvest of the Month items, Bishop said.
The number of elementary school children signed up for the school meal program ranges from 2,000 to 2,400 daily with roughly 34 percent qualifying for free or reduced meals.
Because of a need, GVSD recently began serving “supper snacks” to children enrolled in the after-school program whose parents work late.
Improving access to healthy foods for children from low-income backgrounds is important to Tecklin who says his farm has been trying to connect with local schools for a long time.
For years, Mountain Bounty Farm has donated truckloads of produce to local gleaners who then take the veggies to local food banks.
“It’s great that it’s finally happening…. I could see farms exclusively existing for a school,” he said.
Since a food summit in the fall of 2011, Live Healthy has been working with Grass and school administrators to explore the idea of returning to “scratch cooking.”
This week, Grass and Bishop will travel to Davis with Grass Valley School District Superintendent Eric Fredrickson, Erika Kosina Live Healthy’s School Food Program Director and a curious parent.
They will visit a school district central kitchen that is successfully making food from scratch using minimally processed and locally sourced ingredients within a 300-mile radius.
Voters passed a bond measure to pay for the Yolo County school meal program.
This kind of funding stream offers hope for a system challenged by tight budgets and complicated regulations.
“It’s an ongoing challenge. Our programs are underfunded there’s no doubt about it,” Grass said.
Working in a small central kitchen that lacks enough refrigeration is another hurdle, added Grass.
“Our facility is tight … We do the best we can,” Grass said.
Despite the challenges, Grass makes an effort to serve whole grains like quinoa and is open to buying local and organic when she can.
Last fall, she bought 1,000 pounds of cherry tomatoes from a Grass Valley farmer.
She has bought organic mandarins, persimmons and other produce from farmers in Chico, Penryn and the Capay Valley for years.
All Nevada County school superintendents have signed a letter in favor of scratch cooking. In the next three months, Kosina will work with Grass to draft a workable budget and establish parameters for scratch cooking as well as a local menu.
Adopting a different approach to a school meal program simply takes time and patience.
“You can’t just switch right away,” said Bishop.
Harvest of the Month and other farm-to-school programs are a step toward forging lifelong healthy eating habits, she says.
By the time children see broccoli on the school lunch menu, they will have had seven to eight different interactions with the vegetable — from planting to harvesting to tasting.
“Then our hope is that they’ll eat it,” she said.
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at email@example.com or 530-401-4877.