Whatcom County farmers and school district food service directors showed off their farms, production facilities and kitchens to one another Tuesday, Oct. 22, as part of a mobile workshop designed to foster partnerships that could bring more local produce to school cafeterias.
More than a dozen participants set out on a Whatcom Transportation Authority shuttle Tuesday morning for the Whatcom Farm to School tour. The group toured Hopewell and Cloud Mountain farms, heard a presentation from Wavrin Dairy, and participated in a kitchen skills workshop at Nooksack Middle School.
Cloud Mountain Farm Center is putting the final touches on a food processing facility that could provide chopped and sliced carrots, broccoli, salad greens and slaw mixes to schools and other commercial kitchens as soon as next spring.
The food equipment was paid for with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the building was paid for with help from the Whatcom Community Foundation, said Jeff Voltz, project manager for the Northwest Agriculture Business Center.
The facility could serve as a model for other communities once the certified commercial space is able to sell prepared veggies to schools, said Tricia Kovacs, who works with the Washington Department of Agriculture's Farm to School program.
Right now, local schools mostly cook and serve prepared meals, said tour participant Mark Dalton, director of food services for Bellingham School District.
"Unlike a restaurant, we don't have a lot of prep time, so we have to purchase more prepared options," he said. "Trying to find that locally is a challenge."
The Bellingham district currently offers a snack program with fresh fruits and vegetables at five elementary schools with mostly low-income families, Dalton said. The district buys apples from BelleWood Acres near Lynden for that program, and would likely buy carrots from the new Cloud Mountain facility, he said.
"Right now our district buys about 15,000 pounds of carrots a year," Dalton said. "We're absolutely prepared to start buying those locally."
There's a small cost premium, about 5 percent, when buying prepared veggies closer to home rather than from larger suppliers, but Dalton said it would be well worth the cost.
"The kids notice the difference," he said.
Lynden farmers Bob Castaneda and Patricia Bruner, who own Together Gardens, were among those on the tour. Though they are not a certified organic farm, they said they do not use chemicals to grow their berries.
"Small farms like ours are more in demand," Castaneda said. "To know where your food comes from is more important to more people now."
The farmers and food service workers ate a model lunch together that included a sloppy Joe sandwich and side salad made mostly from local products. One person in the group asked if the food service directors thought children would enjoy the salad. They would, two food directors chimed in, if it were chopped into smaller pieces.
The food preparation facility at Cloud Mountain should be in full swing by fall 2014, Voltz said. Groups that have already said they would buy from the facility include Bellingham School District, Western Washington University food service provider Aramark, and St. Joseph hospital.
Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or email@example.com.