Linda Mercier prepares organic green beans for lunch at Desert Garden Montessori. The school switched to an organic and local menu about five years ago.

Morgan Sailor/Special to aFN

Ashley Schimke, the Arizona Department of Education’s first farm to school specialist, is working to increase the amount of fresh, locally grown produce offered in Arizona schools.

Schimke’s position was created this past January to meet the guidelines in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School initiative and in response to a rise in consumer demand for local food.

“The goal is to support Arizona agriculture and get local farms to support local schools,” said Schimke, who adds that “the local movement has been a growing thing for a long time and Arizona is just now jumping on board.”

Schimke defines local as anything that is grown in the state of Arizona. Farms will have to be certified to sell to schools.

Many districts are excited about the program and Linda Rider, nutritional services director for the Tempe Elementary School District, said the Department of Education is moving in the right direction.

Rider has been with the district for five years and brings in small amounts of local foods like carrots and apples whenever possible. She is serving as part of an advisory council which had its first meeting with Schimke in July. They discussed the unique challenges and goals for the program as schools incorporate locally grown food into their menus.

Ideally the program will lead to a mutually beneficial relationship where money spent on school breakfast and lunch programs will go to support Arizona agriculture and economy. In turn, school children will have better access to wholesome food and nutrition education.

Although Schimke would like to see the program everywhere, and is encouraging schools to take part, participation will not be mandatory. School administrators will make that decision, and if they are interested in adding local options to their menus she will help them connect with farmers.

While the program is still in the beginning stages, the end result could look a bit like the concept used in the Litchfield Elementary School District, which Schimke visited after being hired.

The Litchfield district began buying local 10 years ago and has since evolved into a sort of model program. In all of their schools, kindergarten through eighth grade, they use only whole-grain breads and always provide fresh fruit and salad bars with the 8,000 meals served every day.

“We bring the kindergartners in the first week of school and show them how to use the salad bar — not to use your fingers, but use the tongs instead,” said David Schwake, 61, who has been chief food service director for 17 years.

“If I have to put on the carrot costume I’ll do that too,” said Schwake, but adds that doesn’t happen too often because kids are inquisitive about food and the brightly-colored purple carrots that come from a nearby farm are a big hit.

“We have a philosophy that the farms in our district are property taxpayers and school taxpayers. If we can spend our money here it just helps everyone,” said Schwake, who estimates that they get about 10 percent of their produce locally.

In order to be eligible to sell food in schools, farms must meet guidelines and be approved by the school district in which they will be sold.

Farmers will also have to be able to meet the needs of the schools, which will take education on both sides. Schools will have to understand the limitations of local farms and be able to plan their menus seasonally with the growing cycles.

Any challenges “can be overcome and addressed and it’s just a matter of getting to that point,” said Rider, who added “what my vision would be is every year to have a steady flow of what is seasonal and grown here in Arizona put out at lunch.”

As Tempe incorporates more local food Rider hopes to make it a teachable moment. Those foods will be highlighted at lunch, providing students with an incentive to eat more vegetables and an understanding of where their food comes from. Since food is not just about eating, but also about science, teachers will be provided with information to expand the program into the classroom as a learning tool.

Rider likes the idea of local foods because of the benefits, such as a shorter transportation time that allows produce to retain more nutrients. Also, smaller sized apples, for example, means that elementary students are getting the right portions with less waste. Rider said local foods can be more expensive, but that isn’t always the case and shouldn’t be the only thing looked at when purchasing.

“We always want to provide our students with the best food we have available to us,” she said.

• Morgan Sailor is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. She is a senior at Arizona State University.

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