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Obtaining food locally | GUEST OPINION
How far has your food traveled to get to your plate? The average distance food travels is 1,500 miles from the fields to the kitchen.
In order to travel that far and still be in a saleable condition, most produce is harvested before it is ripe. This way, it is less apt to bruise or be damaged in transit as well as retain some level of shelf-life when it gets to the market place and your home. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognizes that this is not necessarily the most nutritious, or tastiest, way to acquire our foods.
With the new guidelines that the USDA has released for school meals that require more fresh fruits and vegetables be offered to the students at breakfast and lunch, emphasis is now on obtaining those fruits and vegetables as locally as possible. This provides students with food that will taste better because it was harvested within a few days of consumption, and therefore, more ripe with natural flavor.
Arlington Public Schools sees this federal move as a wonderful opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint created by purchasing items produced far away and to feed students food that is more fresh and vitamin-packed. This year, some food was purchased from local farms such as Marshland Orchards in the Snohomish area and processors such as Hendrickson Farms in Marysville.
One challenge that comes from this effort is that the growing season in Washington is more limited than that of more southern states. This will require creative thinking and planning to best use the resources we have and supplement as needed with product that is grown as close as possible to Washington. To accomplish this, a team consisting of food service staff, city and county agricultural departments, processors, farmers, parents, students and the WSU extension has been formed to develop a plan that will utilize a $100,000 grant given to the district from the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians for the Farm to School program.
The team’s vision is to utilize the funds in a way that will create a sustainable program that provides students with food grown and produced locally, as well as provide education regarding the close ties that we all have to farmland for our health and well-being. To make the program sustainable, we want to look at the interconnectivity between farms and homes.
Food does not come from plastic bags and milk from containers, but from the hard work of farmers working to coax the rich soil we have into growing vegetables and grasses. The more we understand this as consumers, the more likely we will be able to teach this to our children. In turn, hopefully they will work to eat well and support farmland continuity so their children will have good food to eat as well.
Several of the schools in Arlington, such as Eagle Creek, have school gardens in which the students work, providing them with the joy of seeing the results of planted seeds and the reward of eating food that each had a hand in growing. To grow well, plants need rich soil. In order to assist in that area, the food service program is also working with the city of Arlington to reduce the waste taken to the land fill by implementing a composting program.
The program was established in the kitchens of each school several months ago by kitchen staff putting all compostable material into “Slim Jims.” These narrow green containers are filled with food items, tray liners, and anything else that a worm can eat. The material is then picked up and taken to a composting facility on a weekly basis. This effort seems to be making a difference as each kitchen fills at least one 64 gallon composting container a week.
Because this is going so well, discussion regarding the expansion of the program to the students is underway. As a result, less waste is going into the landfill and is being turned into a useable form that could potentially be used to grow fresh vegetables in someone’s garden or farm.
Who knows? With our continued efforts to expand local purchases as much as possible, vegetables grown with the compost generated from school kitchens and cafeterias just might be served on your child’s plate at school next fall.
Ed Aylesworth is the Food Services Director for the Arlington Public Schools. He can be reached at 360-618-6213.