Lunch tastes fresher at St. Rose and St. Mary Catholic School this fall.
Crisp raw carrot sticks, tender cooked green beans, tangy tomatoes in spaghetti sauce, sweet sun-drenched watermelon — everything tastes better because students from the Clintonville school grew their own produce last summer at Terry Mares’ farm.
Now they’re eating it every day in lunches prepared by school cook Alycia Syring.
“They were so excited to eat melons they picked,” Syring said on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at the farm on Highway 45 south of town.
Green beans are another favorite.
Zucchini, not so much, but Syring is a clever cook who shreds the sweet summer squash and stirs it into muffins and spaghetti sauce for invisible, delicious results.
“Anywhere we can hide a vegetable, we hide a vegetable,” she said.
Lower Costs, Better Food
Mares, of Mares Farm Market, and Syring directed the farm-to-school project, funded with a $3,750 grant from the 2012 Farm Technology Days held at Sugar Bush.
St. Rose and St. Mary was among local churches and organizations that helped staff the food tent at the hugely successful agricultural event. After all had been paid for their man hours, there was money left for grants and scholarships, according to Mares.
School business manager Mary Hohensee wrote the successful grant application for the farm-to-school project.
The goals were simple: Get students to eat more vegetables; serve locally grown food; and reduce the cost of the school lunch program.
St. Rose and St. Mary has 73 students in 3- and 4-year-old pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, according to Syring. The school serves breakfast and lunch.
The grant paid for some of Mares’ seed costs, containers to hold frozen produce, and Syring’s work hours to process the food.
Hard Work, A Good Harvest
Mares provided a half-acre garden plot at his farm, where students planted, weeded and harvested peas, green and yellow beans, melons, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and pumpkins.
Syring, Hohensee and Ken Meinharet designed a colorful sign posted along the highway to announce the garden’s connection to the school.
Mares kept an eye on the school garden all summer. When there were weeds to pull or produce to pick, he contacted Syring, who brought different small groups of kids to the farm.
From mid-July through September, as crops ripened in sequence, a group from the school was at the farm every week.
There were occasional long faces when kids realized they had to “get all these weeds out,” Mares said.
They worked hard, Syring said. Last week, first and second graders picked carrots, not an easy job in dry earth conditions.
Syring processed and froze the produce. The farm-to-school garden already has filled one and a half chest freezers — and the harvest isn’t over yet.
“They got a very good yield,” Mares said.
Neither Hohensee nor Syring would venture an estimate as to how much money the garden would save the lunch program.
“Frozen vegetables are very expensive,” Hohensee said on Wednesday, Sept. 25.
This year, federal nutrition standards for school lunches call for low-sodium meals, which means no more less expensive canned vegetables.
Planting Seeds for Future
Mares sees other benefits to the garden.
“There’s nothing better than kids learning about agriculture,” he said.
The young gardeners learned the importance of weather — this year, enough rain fell at the right time so there was no need to irrigate the field.
The hands-on experience teaches teamwork and instills a sense of satisfaction.
“The kids, they’re proud,” Mares said.
Syring, who practices at school what she preaches to her own kids about vegetables, is also proud of the project.
“Not many schools can say they have locally grown produce,” she said.