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Wednesday, 05 October 2011 13:06

Local schools now getting food from local farmers

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The growing local food movement that is gaining traction around the country has made its way into Haywood County Schools, where the first shipment of Haywood County produce rolled in earlier this year.

The tomatoes, peppers and corn came courtesy of Skipper Russell, a local farmer who is the only one in the county allowed to sell to the school system.

Russell works a 35-acre farm in Bethel called Seasonal Produce Farms, and his newest client is thanks to his recent GAP certification, a requirement for any farmer wishing to peddle their wares in schools and other government cafeterias.

GAP is short for Good Agriculture Practices, and it’s a strict set of guidelines that ensure food safety, making sure that what gets to the plate was grown and tended the right way. Most farmers say it’s just a recorded verification of what they’re already doing, since good agriculture practices aren’t just nice, they’re what produces quality, sellable produce.

But it’s not a cheap proposition, and each crop must be certified separately. It can take around $1,500 per crop, and sometimes that burden is too much for small farmers to recoup.

Plus, it’s time consuming and pretty onerous.

“The manual’s probably about two inches thick,” said Russell. “It’s a long drawn out process to get to them (the school system), you don’t just go up to them and start selling. But it’s something that more and more people are going to be looking for.”

And that’s why he did it, because he can see what’s coming down the road. Getting certified opens a lot of doors for medium and large farms to get their food into steady, reliable markets like schools. But Russell thinks it will soon close doors for those who don’t have it, as an increasing number of restaurants, stores and even consumers want to know just how the tomatoes on their table were taken care of before getting there.

With the recent outbreaks of E-coli in Europe and listeria still rearing its head in this nation’s cantaloupe, food safety is a hotter button than ever.

In Jackson County Schools, the move has been afoot towards local food — defined by the federal government as anything grown in-state, while local advocacy group the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project considers anything grown within 100 miles as local.

Jim Hill, the child nutrition director there, said he’d love to buy from more hyperlocal producers, but is overall in favor of the GAP regulations that sometimes hamstrings him in that effort.

“I don’t really want 10 farmers in pickup trucks backing up through the schools,” said Hill “You’d rather go through some kind of centralized co-op or warehouse or somewhere where it’s being checked really closely.”

But, he said, with GAP being such a costly endeavor — farmers have to pay the auditors for every hour of their inspection, starting when they leave Raleigh — it’s unfortunately pricing many local producers out of the market.

“The problem with that is, in my opinion, that it really, really, really hurts the small farmer because it’s very expensive to get that GAP certification,” said Hill “The state encourages us to by from locals, but they do make it really hard for us to buy from local farmers.”

One way around that, he said, is to go through a third party, a distributor who is certified, but doesn’t buy exclusively from GAP approved farmers.

That is a tactic he and other school systems use, but they’d prefer to ax the middleman and deal straight with the farmer, a better deal for both sides.

Alison Francis, child nutrition director in Haywood County Schools, said that, with Russell, cutting that middleman has helped them support their neighboring farm and reduce their bottom line simultaneously.

Tomatoes bought from Russell, for example, are nearly half the cost of tomatoes from their national supplier. And for a system that buys a dozen 25-pound cases of them each week, $10 per case instead of $19 adds up quickly.

In Jackson County, they’ve cut out the middleman on the salad bar by simply growing their own.

The hydroponic lettuce is grown by high school students at Smoky Mountain High School in their on-campus greenhouse, and eventually makes its way into the cafeteria what Hill has dubbed ‘Mustang Salads.”

“It’s the closest thing you can imagine to branding a salad,” said Hill. “You can brand a pizza ... but it’s really hard to brand a salad.”

The idea is that if kids know their classmates or siblings or friends grew the salad, they’re much more likely to eat it. They feel more invested in it.

And that’s one of the benefits both Hill and Francis find in local food: it teaches students about where their food comes from, an area in which many kids have a surprising dearth of knowledge.

Francis tells of a time when the subject of food origin came up in an elementary school.

“They asked about if anybody knew where bacon came from and most kids didn’t even know that bacon came from a pig,” said Francis. “I think it’s really important for the kids to see where their food comes from. It’s good for them to know that their food came from just down the road.”

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