School lunch often invokes visions of greasy rectangular pizza, miniature milk cartons and soggy veggies — not a very appetizing picture. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, School Nutrition Services provides affordable meals that are nutritious and appealing. The options vary and include items such as hummus, granola yogurt parfait, baked potato wedges, roasted chicken and salads.
October marks National Farm to School Month. For three years, students have enjoyed farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, thanks to the district’s participation in the N.C. Farm to School program. The program has been supplying school cafeterias across the state with the freshest, locally grown produce from N.C. farms since 1997. Apples, pears, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, watermelon and strawberries are among the many fruits and vegetables that School Nutrition Services receives. These items find the way to students’ trays in recipes or alone.
“We took baby steps in the beginning, starting with apples and sweet potatoes, and have expanded,” said Cathy Beam, CMS executive director of School Nutrition Services. “The program has been beneficial. It helps us provide our students with healthy and nutritious choices while supporting local and regional farmers — it’s a win-win.”
The partnership has been so successful that School Nutrition Services wants to expand its central warehouse coolers to house more farm-fresh products in the future.
N.C. Farm to School is run through the N.C. Department of Agriculture and the Consumer Services’ Food Distribution and Marketing divisions. Food distribution coordinates the deliveries from the farms to the districts, and the marketing division works with the farmers to fill the orders.
The program gives farmers a viable market. Douglas Patterson, the owner and vice president of Patterson Farm, has been a vendor since the program started. The program usually takes place during peak farm season, so it helps the farm move its product and get a fair price during the time its needed most.
“We always need more local customers. This is a way to educate kids and teachers on what is grown in our state and they sample the better flavor of locally grown produce,” said Patterson. “Hopefully, some of the kids will educate the parents and more people will come visit the farm and buy.”
National Farm to School will hold North Carolina Crunch for children and adults Wednesday, Oct. 23. CMS students and staff will join others across the country to crunch an apple or pear to recognize the importance of healthy eating.