New processing center brings more local produce to Whatcom County schools

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 3, 2014 

The Caesar salads served up in some school cafeterias are about to cut their commute time, as a new processing center will allow more local produce to be served in schools.

Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson recently completed a new processing center, which will provide prepared local produce for the Bellingham and Nooksack Valley school districts and Western Washington University starting this fall.

The center had a test run Tuesday, June 3, using out-of-town produce that it processed for delivery the next day to the Bellingham School District.

The processing center will take locally grown carrots, broccoli, cabbage and romaine lettuce and turn them into carrot sticks, florets, shredded cabbage and chopped romaine - the main ingredient in those ever-popular Caesar salads.

A nearly $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid for the processing equipment, and the Whatcom Community Foundation's Sustainable Whatcom fund is providing financial support for the center as it gets off the ground.

The Bellingham School District has gotten some local produce in the past - apples from Bellewood Acres are always popular - but getting vegetables had been challenging in the volume needed to provide the district's 5,000 lunches per day, food services director Mark Dalton said. The district needed its produce to come cleaned and prepared to reduce labor time and costs in school kitchens, and Dalton said it had been difficult to find local produce that was ready to serve.

The district plans on buying hundreds of pounds of prepared local produce per week from the new processing center, which will get vegetables from Cloud Mountain and growers throughout the county to fill the orders. The district usually serves about 300 pounds of carrots per week, 180 pounds of romaine, 80 pounds of broccoli florets, and about 50 pounds of cabbage.

The district has been trying to incorporate local produce into its meals for some time, and this new agreement should double the percentage of district food that is local. When Dalton has compared local chopped romaine to the stuff that the district often gets from California - which usually takes more than a week between when it's harvested and when it gets to the district - the difference is substantial.

"It's crispier and it's fresher, and it will hold longer as a result," he said. "The kids notice it when you get a good quality, fresh product like that."

Cheryl Thornton of Cloud Mountain was excited to work with the schools and to be able to bridge the gap between smaller local farms and larger customers that might have been out of reach without the processing center.

"I think that most people would like to get their food from a more local source than far away," she said. "It's just building on that."

Whatcom Farm to School coordinator Mardi Solomon described the new processing center as a "potential breakthrough" in overcoming the hurdles that had kept local produce out of schools and institutions. The hope is that with larger sales of their produce, farmers might be able to increase revenue and scale up their production.

On the school side, she hopes that seeing and eating local produce at school helps students to learn about local agriculture and support it.

"Good food does grow right nearby and you can even go visit that farm and see the food growing that you got in your lunch tray," she said. "And perhaps you're even eating the food grown by your neighbors. In the case of the kids at Nooksack, many of them live right near where the food is growing."

Reach Zoe Fraley at zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com or 360-756-2803.

Reach ZOE FRALEY at zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com or call 756-2803.

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