"Last year we didn't have all this," said fifth-grader Owen LaSalata, 10, working his way through the salad bar. "I like all the fresh choices. My favorites are mandarin oranges, mixed salad and pinto beans."
Two weeks ago, Arlington School District was named the Western Washington Fresh Food in Schools Champion by the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network.
"Arlington's (school and community Farm-to-School committee) has done such a wonderful job creating the infrastructure needed to get Washington-grown food into cafeterias," said Acacia Larson, coordinator of the network's Fresh Food in Schools Project, which receives funding from the USDA.
Ed Aylesworth, director of health and nutrition for Arlington Public Schools, said he was surprised by the award because his fresh-foods program is still getting started.
"And right now, we're out of season for produce from our local farmers. Fall is when we really get the local foods on the menu, and we're hoping for some strawberries before school is out," Aylesworth said. "But the award is encouraging and it's nice that Arlington is recognized for trying to feed its students well."
In its second year, the Fresh Food in Schools Project now includes 32 new farm-to-school programs statewide. Participating schools bought more than $300,000 worth of Washington-grown fruits and vegetables, an increase of about 82,000 pounds of produce from the previous school year, Larson said.
The aim is to put more Washington-grown fruits and vegetables on the lunch menu, something that's good for kids and good for local farms, Aylesworth said.
Three years ago, the city's natural resources director Bill Blake presented the idea of using local farm produce on the school lunch menu to a joint meeting of the School Board and the City Council.
"My goal was not only to provide good food for our kids, but to create jobs and encourage ecologically sound farming practices in exchange for the certainty of produce sales," Blake said.
Aylesworth, an Arlington native, got on board, as did Arlington resident Linda Neunzig, who serves as agriculture coordinator for Snohomish County and people from the Snohomish Conservation District.
Aylesworth and Blake got help from their friend Shawn Yanity, chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe, who encouraged the tribe to give the Farm-to-School committee a $100,000 grant to get the program going.
The Farm-to-School committee provides for prudent management of the grant funds, Aylesworth said.
The school district installed refrigerated salad bars in its schools and began connecting with farmers in the Stillaguamish River valley. Aylesworth also arranged to give preference to growers in Snohomish, Skagit and Island counties, allowing him to pay a bit more for food grown locally.
Another connection Aylesworth made was with Mike Bennett of Hendrickson Farms in Marysville, which buys produce from around the state. Bennett makes sure fruits and vegetables meet federal guidelines, delivering to Arlington schools fresh, ready-to-eat food.
"Part of the challenge with the salad bars was to get the kids to eat what they take, but to take enough to try it all," Aylesworth said. "There is enough variety that each child should be able to find something he or she likes."
The Farm-to-School program is coming at a good time for Arlington-area farms, Blake said.
"The farming community, which used to be dominated by dairies, is in the middle of a transition, where local growers are developing business plans and relationships with buyers to make sure that if they grow dinner table products, they will be able to sell the produce," Blake said. "The long-range vision is that growers would compete for contracts a year ahead, which would provide them assurance that the up-front investment on seed, planting, weeding and processing will be returned through the sale to the school district."
The committee hopes to increase the use of local produce in the schools and encourage farmers to use greenhouses to expand the options of fresh food availability, Blake said.
Owen LaSalata, the fifth-grader whose name means salad in Latin, said he hasn't bragged to his family about the good food he gets in school.
"They just know I like it," Owen said.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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