MANCHESTER >> It's April Fool's Day at the school cafeteria at MEMS, but the swirl of activity around the food cart where parent volunteer Emily Treske is serving out portions of Rainbow Fries is no joke.
As students emerge from the kitchen counter and enter the room where lunch tables are set up, several pause to check out what she has on offer during one of the school's occasional "taste testings," designed to expose them to different variations of cuisine that may be slightly off the beaten path.
The rainbow fries — a combination of rutabaga, beets, red potatoes mixed with garlic and Parmesan cheese — are a big hit, with plates eagerly thrust in Treske's direction as she ladles the portions out.
"Giving them a chance to try something they usually don't is a really cool thing," she says over the din of noise in the busy cafeteria.
The taste testings are one example of MEMS's move into adding in more local and homegrown food items from the nearby Community Garden to supplement the regular menu offerings. The program, part of a statewide "farm to school" initiative, has been underway for the past three years and had its start five years ago when the school launched an intensive composting and recycling program. It's helped the school reduce its trash output by 75 percent, said Barb Smith, the coordinator of MEMS's farm to school program. As their use of the Community Garden expanded, it has closed a virtuous cycle where the compost is used to help grow their crops there.
With help from Scout Proft of Someday Farm at the start, five of the classes are now growing vegetables, like black beans, winter squash, carrots and pumpkins, which they harvest in the fall and consume later on. Some of the results make there way into the taste testings, which in February were a popular "bubble and squeak" combination, which features cabbage, bacon and potatoes, she said.
"It's a way to find out if the kids like it," Smith said. Then, it can be incorporated into the regular menu and the food procurement plans and budget, she added.
"We're trying not to move too fast, because there's so many different aspects to farm-to-school," she said.
One obvious one is cost, because frequently the expense of obtaining locally grown produce on the scale schools need is more than what larger wholesale vendors charge. But opportunities to weave more locally sourced items combined with the harvest from the Community Garden are there, said Mary Keyes, who has been MEMS's food service manager for the past seven years.
Locally grown apples and potatoes are among them, she said, noting that she acquired 300 lbs. of potatoes from the Community Garden last year.
Northshire Grows, an area nonprofit organization which works to build connections between farmers and food growers with potential customers such as schools, published a calender which highlights a different vegetable each month, and she cues the taste testings around that, she said.
"Each month, we'll take the vegetables they are featuring and we'll do a 'Fearless Friday' — sometimes I'll do what is on the calender as far as what the recipe goes and then other times I'll do something different," she said. "We've had a lot of success with 'Fearless Fridays'."
She typically serves about 200 lunches a day and has a pretty good idea what to expect. "Taco Tuesday" is usually a big hit, and she plans to serve about 15 additional lunches on those days. Otherwise, the kids bring in their own lunches from home. She also serves about 120 breakfasts each day as well, she said.
Helping advance farm-to school partnership has been an alliance with Shelburne Farms Resources, of Shelburne, Vt., and the Northeast Organic Farm Association of Vermont (NOFA). Through one of its programs known as VT FEED (food education every day), which was started in 2000, the partnership has offered training programs and professional development to people interested in promoting farm-to-school, with the aim of boosting local and state farmer's revenues and customer base with high quality food alternatives.
"There's been this sea-change in the thinking about local food production," said Liz Ruffa, one of the main organizers of Northshire Grows and a tireless advocate for their mission, "What farm-to-school is asking them (the schools) is to push the envelop out to see if they can find more local vendors."
With a sufficient scale to work with, bulk buying from local food producers should be about the same, if not less, than from elsewhere, NOFA would contend, she said.
At the same time farmers need to play their role in developing new markets for themselves. Many of them are more comfortable with the direct sale approach at farm stands or farmers markets, which is where Northshire Grows can play a useful role in bringing the two together, she said.
Jennie Freeman, one of Ruffa's colleagues at Northshire Grows has also been working with MEMS and their farm-to school program, and said that the face of the program could look different in every school.
"It could be a music teacher (leading the way); a school may not have a garden; but all seem to have some resources they can tap into," she said. "You're not asking them to buy everything locally; there's not an expectation of that. There's an underlying theme of health and wellness and this is one angle."
Plus, those rainbow fries were darn good.
How to make Rainbow fries: Take 1 rutabaga, 1 beet, 3 red potatoes, 3 teaspoons oil, 9 cloves of garlic, 1 teaspoon of salt, 3 tablespoons of Parmesan cheese and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash the vegetables; peel the rutabaga and cut into fries. Cut beets and potatoes into fries. Toss vegetables into oil coating evenly. Add salt. Chop garlic cloves and add to vegetable mix. Spread evenly on sheet tray. Bake until cooked through and fries are crisp (about 30 minutes). Remove from oven and sprinkle with cheese. Serves six.