October is National Farm to School Month during which we celebrate, along with other communities across the United States, the many ways that connections are being made between our school children and local foods. Established by Congress in 2010, National Farm to School Month highlights the importance of farm to school programs in promoting child health and nutrition, educating children about the importance of life-long healthy eating habits and supporting local economies by purchasing healthy foods from local farmers.
Winters has been actively involved in farm to school since 2011, when a small group of dedicated and concerned citizens came together to ask the question “how can we feed our children healthier foods in our schools?” After all, Winters is surrounded by some of the best farmland on the earth and grows foods that are shipped around the world. Why couldn't those same foods be served to our school children?
Cathy Olsen, a founding member of Winters Farm to School and the Food Services Director for the Winters School District, knew what she needed to get healthier foods onto our children’s cafeteria plates and into their stomachs. Olsen, from a farming family in Petaluma, knew how to talk to farmers and buy directly from them. “We are very fortunate to have so many farms right here in Winters and throughout Yolo County that want to grow foods for our schools. There are different challenges in growing foods for school districts, such as transporting the food from the farms to the schools and the quantity of foods that schools need.“
“It’s all about building relationships with local farmers” says Olsen, who buys from nine local farms. “ I met a kiwi farmer at the Davis Farmers Market who was thrilled to have our school district as his primary buyer. It’s good for the farmer and it’s good for the kids. Our school children absolutely love the kiwis and we are happy to support his farm.”
Olsen also has a dedicated kitchen staff who know how to present the fruits and vegetables in an inviting, attractive way. “Our Kitchen Manager, Patty Jiminez, has a flair for creating cute animals from vegetables. She makes little mice out of fresh radishes and the kids just love it! When children are excited to see what fruits and vegetables will be on the salad bar that day, we know we have made progress” says Olsen.
“At first it was a struggle to get kids to eat healthier food” says Olsen. “ But we kept at it by educating the kids about why eating healthy foods was so important, rewarding them with stickers when they ate their vegetables, having them color pictures of health foods, anything to get them to try something new. We have even had the Asparagus Hall of Fame where kids who try asparagus get their picture taken and displayed on the cafeteria wall. The kids look for their photos every time they come into the cafeteria. It has been a really successful way to get the kids to eat their vegetables!”
Since Winters Farm to School started, Olsen has been able to serve a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables every day of the school year. “Ten years ago, when I first started working at the school district, we had a budget of $7,000 per school year for fruits, nuts and vegetables, “ comments Olsen. "Much of what we served was canned or processed foods. Now, with funds raised by Winters Farm to School at their annual summer Bastille Day Feast fundraiser, I am spending over $60,000 per year on fresh, local fruits, nuts and produce. There is no way that would be possible without the contribution of Winters Farm to School.”
“As Winters celebrates National Farm to School Month we are thankful for the many farmers, businesses and local families who have generously supported our own Winters Farm to School Program over the years” says Olsen. “We couldn’t do it without them.”