WENATCHEE — Remember those school lunches of fish sticks, instant mashed potatoes and mushy Army-green stringbeans out of the can? Maybe not. Some things are better forgotten.
Kids are eating better these days and the Farm to School Program is playing an important part. Wednesday was the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Taste Washington Day, so many school cooks spiced up their menus with an extra helping of local produce.
Wenatchee School District didn’t have to do much different than what they’ve been doing for the past five years. The district is on the leading edge of state and national programs to feed kids fresher, tastier and healthier foods while supporting local farmers.
Cashmere farmer Sue Gasbar visited Orchard Middle School Wednesday to hand out cherry tomatoes, crisp stringbeans and rainbow carrots, still with their green tops. The school buys produce from her and eight other local farmers.
“I just ate a purple carrot. It was sooo good,” said seventh-grader Rachel Blackburn, an unabashed vegetable lover who had nonstop questions for Gasbar about her display of squash, green vegetables and fruit, all items she grows and sells weekly to Orchard and Pioneer middle schools.
“I love selling at farmers markets, but this is a nice program for me because I can drop off a shipment here and be off to my next stop instead of sitting in a booth for six hours,” said Gasbar, who turned to farming after 34 years teaching health and physical education at Cashmere Middle School. The schools pay competitive prices, she said, “and I like to get back into schools and see kids eat right.”
Trays of roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots, squash and onions, all locally sourced, is one dish Paula Danielsen has been serving at Orchard for at least three years. A salad bar with fresh melon, blueberries, broccoli and cauliflower and two scratch-made fresh salsas made tasty sides for the day’s special of chicken fajitas and spicy rice. The salad bar is standard fare every day. Signs and a map in the cafeteria tell what products come from which farms and where each product is grown.
“My philosophy is feed them something good and they’ll eat it. I don’t like to dumb down the food,” said Danielsen, who took over Orchard’s kitchen 12 years ago. She previously worked as a cook at the Wenatchee Golf and Country Club and was a food service specialist while in the Air Force.
“I get super excited about this. We cook something real every day: soups, stews, vegetarian lasagna, risotto, fresh salsa. We have local fruits and vegetables every day. The cool part is that the kids have embraced it,” Danielsen said. She said she relies on small farmers like Gasbar, who will plant specific crops to the schools needs.
Kent Getzin, Wenatchee School District food director, said school cafeteria food has a ways to go in becoming great cuisine because it’s so based on government commodities. School food programs don’t encourage scratch cooking. Local sourcing is a way to greatly improve the taste and nutrition of food while helping local farmers, but it requires more work. His budget for locally produced fruit and vegetables has increased from $20,000 to nearly $90,000 a year over the past five years.
Getzin hopes the trend will spread to schools all over the nation. He was appointed to a national 19-member Farm to School Committee earlier this year to help produce training programs for other schools.
“It’s very encouraging,” he said.
Kids lined up to get the carrots, but Gasbar had to work harder to move her yellow stringbeans. She went from table to table daring kids to try. Some declined, but most agreed and were polite, she said. Some needed no prodding at all.
“I love that they have signs that show us where the fruit and vegetables came from,” said Gwen McQuaig, a seventh-grader. “Who cares about good eating habits once you realize how good fresh food can be?”