In March of this year, we reported on the Maricopa County Farm Tour aimed at making the Arizona Department of Education's food service directors more aware of the abundance of local produce being grown in the areas around their schools. The ADE and Local First Arizona continued connecting local farms in Northern Arizona to school districts wishing to localize their meals with another Farm Tour in Prescott Valley this past July. The Northern Arizona Tour, funded by the Steele Foundation, included nearly twenty school food service workers who came from the far corners of Arizona to visit Whipstone Farm in Paulden, Arizona (about 25 miles north of Prescott) and Mortimer Family Farms in the town of Dewey-Humboldt (about 20 miles east of Prescott). The day culminated at the Humboldt Unified School District for an afternoon of informative talks on resources for helping schools in their quest to localize their kitchens.
Just as the tours before it in Maricopa County and Yuma County, the Northern Arizona tour did not fail to inspire new relationships between growers and buyers while sparking important conversations on localizing the food served in our schools. How can small, rural districts partner to get more frequent deliveries of fresh produce from local suppliers? How are schools enticing children to eat more vegetables in their lunches? What does food safety certification have to do with school gardens? "These tours are great," commented Joe Clevenger of Concho Elementary School District. "It's always good to meet people doing what I am doing from other parts of the state," he said as we made our way out of town.
WHIPSTONE FARM Whipstone Farm, a 15 acre, family-run farm outside of Prescott grows over 100 varieties of vegetables, as well as flowers, herbs, and eggs that they sell at three farmers markets in the Prescott area. Whipstone also sells directly to restaurants and sells to consumers through their CSA program and farm stand located right on their farm. Whipstone is certified "Naturally Grown," meaning everything they grow is grown without the use of any synthetic fertilizer or chemical pesticides. Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) inspections are generally peer-to-peer, carried out by other farmers in the CNG network. The CNG program offers small- and medium-scale farmers an alternative to costly and paperwork-laden "Organic Certification" put forth by the USDA, while providing a way for farmers to show some accountability to their customers.
As farmers Corey and Shanti Rade walked the group around their fields bursting with greens and through the greenhouse dripping with tomatoes, it was clear that the sheer diversity of food Whipstone produces on such a small parcel of land was an eye-opener. "If they can do this with 15 acres, imagine what they could do with a little more land," I overheard as we walked back to the bus. Imagine is right, I thought. Imagine what school lunches would look like if family farms like Whipstone dedicated portions of their incredible production to schools. That would be the first step of many needed to complete the goal, but it is a good first step.
MORTIMER FAMILY FARMS Next stop on the Northern Arizona Farm Tour was Mortimer Family Farms operating in Dewey-Humboldt. Formerly known as Young’s Farm, Mortimer Family Farms (MFF) is bringing back the rich farming history of Dewey-Humboldt. The farm most notably grows corn and a variety of other seasonal vegetables on their 300 acre farm and also features a Farm Store and nursery on site. The farm employs no-till and low-till practices (aimed at keeping more nutrients in the soil) and also grows non-GMO corn and other produce. "We grow non-GMO because people are asking for it, and at the end of the day, it is the right thing to do," explained Sharla Mortimer, one of the owners of the Farm. The Mortimer's took over Young's Farm in 2011 and have continued to keep the farm's agriculturally-oriented festivals and field trips going. MFF also continues to welcome school children to tour its farm throughout the year. "We love to provide a unique educational opportunity to children in the area," said Sharla as we climbed on a trailer for the tour. "Most kids don't know where their food comes from and we love showing them for the first time."
MAIN CHALLENGES ARE SEASONAL, LACK OF RURAL DISTRIBUTION, GROWER CERTIFICATION As with many farms in the area, there are some seasonal challenges to selling directly to schools. Because most area farms are producing the majority of their crops from spring to fall, they miss the bulk of the school year, when most meals are served. Wren Meyers, a Farm-to-School advocate working in the Prescott area, countered this fact, noting that there are many meal programs for children operating year round. "Summer meal programs could definitely utilize locally grown produce. There are still many opportunities to get this produce in front of our children during the summer," she said as we toured Mortimer Family Farms. A larger conversation arises from Wren's point about possible collaboration with food processors throughout the state to freeze fresh food (for soups, casseroles, side dishes) grown in the summertime that schools can use over the course of a school year. For now, this possibility remains an idea, but it is one that could help keep local food in schools during seasons when food production level drop.
Other challenges include distribution and food safety certification. Joe Clevenger found it continually challenging to get fresh produce delivered regularly to the small town of Concho, located about 30 miles east of Show Low in Eastern Arizona. Joe credited the 2012 Yuma Farm Tour hosted by ADE with helping to inspire his school to build a greenhouse at Concho Elementary School. He figured he could start to grow some of the school's produce in the greenhouse, which would also help to teach students about where their food comes from. Due to the food safety certification requirements schools must comply with, Joe soon found he'd need to get the greenhouse certified as an "approved source" in order to use the produce in the cafeteria,something he was not able to do with the AZ Department of Health Services in his are. "We thought it was a great idea and were surprised at not being able to use what we grew in the school greenhouse," he said. "When I found out we couldn't use the produce in our lunches, we came up with the idea to sell our plant starters at the local farmers market to keep the greenhouse going as a learning experience, to help it pay for itself."
Why do schools need to source food from "certified" sources? It’s a food safety requirement of most county health departments, who are responsible for dictating “approved” source according to Arizona’s Food Code. Schools worry about the impact of making a student sick because of risk associated with food borne illness to students. There are also serious legal issues that arise if/when a student gets stick from food served from the cafeteria. Children (especially ages 1-5, but all way through adolescence) have underdeveloped immune systems to fight off all illness, including food borne illness. Couple that with the children eating on food assistance programs like the National School Lunch Program and the risk of contaminated foods can be very dangerous to the health of a student. Food in schools must be traceable back to its source in case there is an outbreak of any kind. Food safety certification ensures that food is grown by certain standards that lower risk of contamination.
FARM TOURS CONTINUE IN SOUTHERN ARIZONA The Arizona Department of Education will be touring Southern Arizona in October, which coincides with National Farm to School Month. ADE is partnering with Tucson Unified School District, Good Food Allies, and Local First Arizona to explore southern Arizona agriculture. Visits are planned to San Xavier Farms near Tucson, AZ and Sleeping Frog Farms near Benson, Arizona and special guests from the Tohono O'odahm Community Action (TOCA). This daylong workshop is geared toward educating school food buyers, school food service directors, and school menu planners about the farm to school supply chain. The tour emphasizes high-quality standards and practices used in agriculture today, along with best practices in food safety, procurement, and marketing. "We are hoping for a good turn out of buyers, especially as October is National Farm to School Month," said Ashley Schimke, the Farm to School Specialist for ADE. "The interest is there, as we have seen from the popularity of the last three tours. We hope to create an environment where long-lasting relationships are created between the buyers and the growers." The Southern Arizona Farm tour for school food buyers is October 28th, 2013 and those interested in participating should email [email protected] for more information.