One of the best parts of living in Connecticut is the fresh produce you can get at your local farm stand. Now, one school district is bringing the farm-to-table concept to its cafeterias.
“How can we not only give our kids better food but also help the local farmers,” asked Dr. Joseph Olzacki, superintendent of the Region 14 school district.
The answer came during a recent trip to Indianapolis. At a conference for Future Farmers of America Olzacki learned that school districts are adopting a farm-to-table mentality, buying fresh, locally grown produce in place of canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. Now, Olzacki wants to implement the plan in Woodbury and Bethlehem.
“This area, all these farms, I’ve been to almost every one of them and eaten something that they’ve had. I mean they have the sweetest apples around," he said.
“They’ll have strawberries, they’ll have corn, blueberries,” added Mary Ellen Latganzio, the cafeteria manager at Bethlehem Elementary School.
She said 60 to 70 percent of students at the school chose to buy lunch instead of bringing it from home. She’ll run the pilot program this spring.
“Of course, fresh is better,” she pointed out.
Olzachi shared that his goal is to give students more variety during the lunch hour.
“In Woodbury and in Bethlehem we have many farms and everyone has their specialty,” he said.
One of those farms sits just a few 100 feet up the road from Bethlehem Elementary School: March Farms, which provided apples to students on Monday and plans to have tomatoes ready by May.
“I think it’s great,” said owner Tom March.
Besides tomatoes, the farm grows broccoli and much more.
“Beets, carrots, corn. We can keep them going until December,” he said.
Olzachi hopes his idea is appetizing to other area farmers. He plans to send out a survey to 18 of them later this month.
“We thought, what a win-win for everyone,” said Michael Berecz, owner of The Farm in Woodbury.
Berecz sends his daughter to school in the district. While he said he’s excited to participate he questioned how the program will work in the wintertime.
“The seasons are definitely kind of against us in some regard,” said Berecz.
He pointed out that the prime time for produce like beans and berries is when students are out of school.
“You’re not going to get green beans this time of year or summer squash,” Berecz explained. “We have about 500 bushels of butternut squash. Now, that could totally be on a plate in a school system.”
Olzacki said the seasonal local produce will serve as a supplement to the federal program that provides fruits and vegetables year-round.
“When we don’t need the California or Florida fruit we can get it right here,” said Olzacki.
He believes the plan could save the school district money.
“We’re asked every day to do more and stretch these dollars,” he pointed out.
“The savings should come from the fact that transportation will no longer exist,” explained Finance Director Wayne McCalister.
Right now, some produce is trucked in from out of state.
“We get things from New Jersey, I know we get things from New York state. I know there’s other places. We certainly don’t get pineapple from Connecticut,” Olzacki explained.
Now, it will just have to be driven down the road to get on the children’s plates.
McCalister said he’s going to compare the prices he receives from area farmers with what the school district has paid for produce the last three years to make sure the district doesn’t go over budget.
“We operate on thin margins,” said McCalister. “A one-percent differential on food costs could mean profit or loss for the year.”