South King County school lunches get farm-fresh

A lunch with cherries, apricots, and green beans from Magana Farms at Kent Elementary.

Making school lunches with Washington-grown, farm-fresh food seems like a simple enough idea. But while school nutrition directors may want to provide students with fresh fruit and vegetables from nearby farms, they may end up asking themselves questions like: How do I contract with local farmers to purchase the food? Or, how should I change food preparation to incorporate seasonal produce?

With the mission of bringing Washington-grown food, like cherries, apricots, green beans, zucchini, to student lunches, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) partnered with three school districts, Auburn, Kent, Renton, to form the South King County Farm to School Collaborative.

A lunch with cherries, apricots, and green beans from Magana Farms at Kent Elementary.Step 1: Collaborate with vendors
With help from the Community Transformation Grant, WSDA staff figured out the best produce purchase process between local vendors and schools and worked to make sure the new system was sustainable.

Through collaboration, the project helped vendors (farms, distributors, and processors) learn about the needs of school districts and helped the school districts understand the ins and outs of buying fresh fruit and vegetables from local vendors.

Step 2: Turn food into meals
With new fruits and vegetables filling up the fridges in the cafeteria, the next step was to learn how to integrate them into lunches. WSDA took nutrition staff on a field trip to Viva Farms, where a local chef gave a hands-on kitchen skills training and showed them how to use seasonal produce to make lunches for their combined 57,000 students.

Step 3: Watch the paradigm shift
During the 2013 to 2014 school year, the Collaborative purchased over 55,000 pounds of Washington-grown produce. And, all participating school districts increased the percentage of their food budgets that they spent on local produce. One school district doubled the dollar amount and another had a nine-fold increase.

Seeing local food come from local families was a highlight for Kira Acker, Renton School District Nutrition Services and Warehouse Manager at the time, “The guy comes with asparagus, he comes with his brother, with his name on the truck, and I knew that every penny was going to support his family.”

With procurement tools and vender relationships  developed through the Collaborative work, school districts continue to bring healthy, Washington-grown foods into their schools—helping kids eat better and supporting Washington vendors and the local economy.

Next steps
Farm to School is getting a boost in the coming school year from a new USDA Pilot Project for the Procurement of Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables, which allows schools more flexibility to use their federal USDA Foods dollars to buy direct from farms and local food vendors. Washington is one of only eight states selected to participate.

WSDA is partnering closely with the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to get Washington farms, processors and distributors ready to become approved vendors, which will provide Washington school districts a streamlined and simple way to purchase locally-grown produce.