Notes from the Kitchen
Tony Geraci, Food Service Director
Con-Val School District, Peterborough, NH
South Meadow School
As a school food service director, I know the importance of keeping tight control over my costs. When I was first contacted about the "Farms to Cafeteria" program, I was skeptical to say the least. I felt that trying to work with local farms to service my school system's needs was a waste of my time, money, and energy. I am here today to say I was wrong! Not only have I saved time (a commodity we have much too little of to ever waste) lowered my costs, and created such a buzz in our community that I continue to get calls and e-mails from people in our district asking how they can help.
It started out with apples. We are out in the sticks even by NH standards, so the then current network for apple distribution was out of the loop for us. Enter the McLeod family and Norway Hill Farm. This Hancock family has gone out of their way to help us in our goal to include NH apples in our school lunch. We used as many as they could produce. It was a boom for them and a bargain for us. Win/Win that's what makes it work. I bought all the small apples that they produced. These apples don't sell well in the retail market place, but are great for the kids, especially for K-4. They like them, and more importantly, they eat them.
The great folks at PLANTS ALIVE! in Bennington came to us and said, "I hear you folks now have salad bars at your schools." I replied that indeed we do. "I grow some lettuce, maybe you could take a look at some... see what you think." Well what I thought was, "Is this guy nuts... green house lettuce in NH?!!!" I'm from New Orleans and I know that ice is for drinks, you can't grow lettuce here! Once again, I'm here to say WRONG!!! Our kids now enjoy fresh field greens picked every day for their salad bars. The cost - $3.00 per pound, that's 100% yield. Because it is cleaned, and picked by hand I have virtually no waste. He grows five different varieties for us. We also get great herbs, tomatoes, and peppers that we use in our meals, in addition to our staff dining program.
At the South Meadow school in Peterborough, the principal, Mr. Richard Dunning, has started a green house as a tool to teach his kids about responsibility, among other things. He is putting together a plan to include a barn and raise a few animals for harvest. His efforts underscore the way that the Con Val school district has embraced the idea of sustainable agriculture as a method to show each one of us the important lesson of being diligent stewards of our resources. This nation has been blessed by abundance; abundance in natural resources, technology, and most importantly, in our people. We have come from the far corners of this planet to seek out a better way of life for ourselves and our children. This nation has been made strong by our ability to embrace any obstacles in our paths and to overcome them.
I feel one of the largest hurdles we, as a nation, must overcome today is to reverse the attitude of the fast food throwaway consciousness we have fallen into. When I first accepted the job as food service director for the Con Val district, I wanted to know a little more about the kids: what were their food memories, their food histories, their likes and dislikes? So I sent out a flyer/questionaire to do just that. What I got back was a shock to say the least! Not one person on the list, just litanies of FAST FOOD giants. Not one mention of Aunt Mary's apple pie, Grandma's Sunday pot roast, Cousin Lynn's lasagna. No people, just the folks who supersize and double stuff it down our throats with slick marketing and cute ad campaigns. I'm a chef, I grew up in a family of cooks. I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?" The kids that we are feeding today are the first full-on FAST FOOD generation, or "Gen-Mac," as my kids like to call themselves. The challenge now became, how do I get these kids back on track with "real" food that is good for them, tastes great, and most importanly, helps them to understand why these changes need to happen. EDUCATION. The power to change begins with knowledge. With the cooperation of the staff members and administrators we have embarked on this mission of change.
Cooking With Kids
Because I'm a cook first and foremost, I knew that if I could get the kids in the kitchen to play I stood a chance of succeeding in my goal of creating some real food memories with these kids. The sixth graders were about to begin their studies on the New World. Ms. Howe and Mrs. Van Valkenburg of the Wilder team, a really talented and fun group of kids, asked if I would help them with a fiesta. I suggested that maybe we cook together using only foods found in the new world before the Europeans arrived. I'm a bit of a food historian so I gathered up all the fresh produce and fish I could get my hands on (it's great to live in a time where you can find fresh exotic produce year-round... thank you Black River Produce!). We made fresh spicy fruit salsa, purple potatoes, baked fish with chili in parhcment (no banana leaves, they got the idea though), and fresh fruit and juice smoothies. The biggest hit was the Mayan coco - they could not believe how tasty something could be without sugar. We made it sweet by using fresh pulverized corn and coconuts. They had a blast!! They cooked, learned, and played. They tasted, touched, and smelled. They learned from experience and they taught each other what they learned. They got it!
My first year at Con Val was spent cooking with kids. Homemade mushroom and pumpkin ravioli. "They won't eat that!" were the screams from the lunch ladies. We ran out. Chef Boyardee somewhere stands weeping knowing his cans of spagetee-o's will now go unopened. Three-cheese tortellini in fresh-from-the-garden pesto, "It's green," were the cat calls, "they won't eat it." "When are you making that pasta again?" a sixth-grader exclaimed, "It tastes like the way my granny's garden smells." "Is that a good thing?" I asked. A pause and a smile, "Yes," was her answer. Not only do they get it, now they are asking for it.
At a high school the challenge was turn fast-food into something the kids could get behind (make that, recognize). Pizza with pizzaz: less fat, more veggies, more flavor. No goopy, out-of-a-can cheese nachos; instead how about "the real deal" black bean chili nachos? How about all you can eat fresh fruit and vegetable bars? Making a reimbursable meal a far better deal then a fast food style meal, with fresher choices. Stir fry's instead of French fries; let's try cider instead of soda. Choice. That is the most (in my opinion) important thing we can do for our kids. Give them better and healthier options; limit access to all the crap that they are told is "McMarvelous." Look I'm not a food Nazi, I don't think everyone has food issues or are is overweight. I do, however, believe that if we as food service professionals don't start (with the cooperation of everyone) doing something about education in terms of healthier living (yes, that includes excercise, eating the right foods, and reducing stress in our lives), who will?
Doing the Right Thing
Four small words that contain a huge message. Doing the right thing. Does it mean the most cost-effective thing? Taking the path of least resistance? Being accomodating to your peers? Sometimes doing the right thing takes a lot of courage. The courage to change the course of your current program to include the local products wherever and whenever possible. Being a good steward for your community by including that community in your business plan. For us at Con Val that "thing" has not always been an easy one. We are working towards our goal to give our kids the best opportunites we can provide in an environment that encourages excellence and nurtures the benefits of being an active participant in the community we live in. We buy our bagels from our local baker, our eggs from the local egg farmer, apples from the local orchards, lettuce and some produce (whatever they can grow for us) from a local green house. We even get our bottled water from the Monadnock Water Co., a regional business, at an incredible savings I might add. We buy local products and support local business with local dollars. These local dollars, in part, keep our local economy strong and fuel growth and success. Those local businesses, in turn, support our schools with their tax dollars. It comes full circle - it's a win/win process. We do this because we have reassessed the value of the most precious asset we have, our children. What we say, do, and give to these kids today will speak volumes about how we may hope to be treated in the future (not that far away for some of us). We do the right thing because of just that. It is THE RIGHT THING. We look to our community as a resource for our continuing success; a sounding board for our ideas and a strategic partner in transforming our kids into the leaders of tomorrow.
Anthony Geraci, 2004
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