Those who have been following the news recently have stood witness to some weighty issues surrounding the food industry. Pink slime, tuna scrapings, growth hormones - the list could continue.
It's been more than 100 years since American journalist Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle" and yet issues regarding the quality of the food supply and the integrity of the food industry still surface from time to time. More recently, Jonathan Safran Foer has written "Eating Animals" and Robert Kenner has directed "Food, Inc.," both of which explore corporate farming and the nigh inhumane animal practices it executes, as well as the health risks it imposes upon consumers.
While some choose to ignore the ramifications of corporate farming and others remain ambivalent about them, many Americans are becoming much more conscientious about where their food is coming from. Organic farming is reaching the height of its popularity and more consumers are taking the time to eat food that is prepared locally rather than shipped thousands of miles by truck.
Chef Alex Grey speaks to a crowd at a recent Farm to School event.
P-J photo by Remington Whitcomb
Consumers are also realizing the benefits of cutting out the corporate-conglomerate middle man as well. Just as sports fans rarely enjoy the marked-up prices that scalpers offer for tickets, or purchasing a hot dog inside the stadium for $9 when one could buy six outside the stadium for $2, consumers are finding that food straight from the farm or garden is often cheaper, more reliable and of better quality than what can be found in a chain supermarket's produce section. And it's not just individual consumers who are starting to make the switch - schools, restaurants, businesses and other agencies are all discovering that students and employees that eat better often perform better. It was 1825 when Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, "tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are," yet the old idiom of "you are what you eat" is just as pertinent as ever.
LOCAL SCHOOLS MAKE THE CHANGE
Recently, a group of farmers, teachers, chefs and administrators gathered at the Athenaeum Hotel at the Chautauqua Institution to learn about what local schools are doing to enrich their students' lunches with food from local farms.
Aptly named Farm to School, the event saw representatives from four different school districts as well as representatives from the Chautauqua Health Action Team and the Chautauqua County Health Department discuss what is currently broken with high school lunches and how implementing fresher, healthier foods from local farms can help to fix it.
According to Breeanne Agett, representative from the Chautauqua County Health Department, Farm to School is broadly defined as a program that connects schools and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in schools' cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers.
"Each Farm to School program is very different," said Agett. "It's based on the community you live in ... it's a national movement and everywhere across the country there are programs like this going on and the USDA fully supports them."
Agett continued by saying that other aspects of Farm to School can include, but are not limited to: building a school garden, going on farm tours for a field trip, bringing in farmers to the classroom to speak and bringing in chefs to speak about nutrition.
According to Agett, the benefits of such a program extend past the nutrition of the students.
"If you're getting food locally from your farmers, that food didn't need to travel across the country, so it helps to reduce our carbon footprint," said Agett. "It's environmentally friendly and it also increases sales for local farmers, which helps our local economy."
The first school to present at the mixer was Westfield Academy & Central School. Representing the school was Christina Marsh, operations manager for the Brick Walk Cafe.
Westfield Central School recently abolished sugary snacks such from the lunchroom and installed a salad bar instead. According to Marsh, the results have been impressive.
"The power of the salad bar - increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables by children - encourages children to try new items," said Marsh. "Increased fruit-and-vegetable intake is linked to improved classroom behavior. Children learn to make decisions that carry over outside of school, providing for a lifetime of healthy snack and meal choices. Research has shown us that actual experience in schools across the country demonstrate that school children can increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables when given these choices on the salad bar. When offered multiple fruit and vegetable choices, children respond by trying new items, it helps to incorporate a greater variety of fruits and vegetables into their diet and it increases their daily consumption of fruits and vegetables."
Marsh concluded by reinforcing that the Farm to School program is a great way for schools to make a difference in the lives of children.
Representing Pine Valley Central School, Terry Brown, cafeteria manager, and Pete Morgante, superintendent, presented how Pine Valley Central School put its own twist on Farm to School.
The school desired to find a way to tie in the implementation of Farm to School with an educational program. When there was a decision to place a focus upon apples, Morgante decided to use folk-hero Johnny Appleseed as a mascot.
"When I thought about apples, I thought of Johnny Appleseed," said Morgante. "I thought to myself, 'we've got to tie this into literature.' So what we did was develop a program around apples and Johnny Appleseed. We purchased books for all the kids (about Appleseed) and the classrooms read them."
"So far (since we've started the program) we've gone through 155 bushels of apples," said Brown. "I had a hard time figuring out what the difference was because we've always purchased apples before - the children just simply weren't taking them. I think part of it is the pride of the apples being locally grown (through the Farm to School program)."
Following Pine Valley Central School, Jason Toczydlowski, director of sales and marketing for the Athenaeum Hotel, invited guests to gather around three display tables where three hotel chefs led tutorials on how to make quick, tasty and healthy meals using local produce.
Ross Warhol, executive chef, along with chefs Marissa Love and Alex Grey prepared butternut squash soup, vegetable lasagna and fish tacos, respectively, for guests to try. All dishes were prepared using local produce and would be acceptable to serve under new school lunch program requirements.
After the chefs had finished, Deanie Thorsell, Sherman Central School nurse, explained why she's so excited about Farm to School.
"I can't tell you how excited I am to be here," said Thorsell. "Farm to School is something that has been a personal passion of mine for a long time. I've been watching the Internet and looking at all the things that were out there and I thought to myself, 'this is a community that could really benefit from this type of a program.' I found out eventually that there were other schools in the area that were practicing it and I'm glad we're finally communicating with the people that we need to. To be in the same room with all the farmers and the other school ... I'm really excited that we're all here."
At Sherman Central School, the school embraced grapes much in the same way that Pine Valley embraced apples. Different disciplines incorporated grapes in different ways.
"We tried to find a way we could talk about grapes in every class," said Thorsell. "Our math teachers came up with 'the grapes of math' and we showed in our science classes that we have something that looks like grapes in our lungs."
Additionally, Sherman Central School created a video about how eating healthier food and eating local food can go hand in hand.
Finally, representing Jamestown Public Schools was Walter Gaczewski, JHS's food service director. Gaczewski explained how Jamestown's school have shifted to meet new guidelines for school lunches.
"One of the biggest changes is that we have to offer more fruits and vegetables," said Gaczewski. "For meals we have to offer up to a cup of fruit. Student don't need to take the full cup, but they do have to take at least half a cup for that meal to be reimbursable (by the USDA)."
Additionally Jamestown has found ways to incorporate more whole grains and less fats and trans-fats into their meals.
To conclude the event, guests were encouraged to mix and mingle with each other to discuss and share techniques and tips.
"It's just great that this is happening," said Toczydlowski. "I'm very proud that the Athenaeum Hotel could be a part of this."
LA SCALA ADDS GARDEN
Beginning last year, La Scala Restaurant in Jamestown decided to try out something new. Rather than rely upon distributors for the entirety of its produce needs, owner Michael Seagren started growing a select number of vegetables in a garden located directly behind the restaurant.
The practice was so well-received, the practice has been brought back this year and to a larger extent.
"The quality of the products we used to get from some purveyors from different areas and different counties, when we finally get it, it's either spoiled or has chemicals to preserve it," said Melanie Yannie, banquet and event manager. "I think one of the reasons people come here is they know when they order a dish, that the tomato or pepper or basil that is in it was still on the vine 10 minutes ago. I've read studies that support that the nutritional value of produce is highest at the time it's harvested and obviously that's what we're trying to accomplish - get the food from garden to table without any unnecessary stops."
According to Yannie, more and more customers are visiting the restaurant to try out its fresh-from-the-garden ingredients and many are returning because of it.
Because La Scala serves, on average, about 100 entrees a day, unfortunately the garden they are growing cannot be relied upon to supply 100 percent of the produce needed, however Yannie suggests that after another successful year, the garden could once again expand.
"What we can't grow ourselves, we buy locally," said Yannie. "We know our local farmers and we know all about the quality produce they have to offer. We don't want to be just another Italian restaurant, we want to be this best and I think this is one of the many ways that we achieve that. ... I just think that when you live in a community that is as agriculturally minded as Chautauqua County it would be a mistake not to take advantage of it. Keeping everything local keeps everyone employed and gives us the opportunity to serve the best food we can and be proud of it."