Freshly baked rolls, made with whole wheat flour milled about 30 miles away, cooled on racks as Criss Atwell walked through his huge kitchen.
He was providing a glimpse of some of the locally produced ingredients that go into student meals in Modesto City Schools. The amount, already substantial, could soon rise thanks to a $90,751 grant that the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week.
The grant, one of 71 awarded under the Farm to School program for 2014, aims to give children and teens a greater taste of the bounty produced around them. It might be peaches grown near Hughson, carrots from Kern County, milk processed in Modesto or flour from Stockton.
“If you have two equal products, one in Illinois and one in Stockton, we’re going to try to take the one that’s local,” said Atwell, director of nutrition services for the district.
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The money will boost the district’s capacity for handling food from local sources – defined as Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties – and from regional sources, which takes in the Central and Salinas valleys. The effort also involves educating students about food via a campus garden and other means.
Modesto City Schools already was spending about 70 percent of its nearly $4 million annual food budget on local and regional items, according to an application prepared by grant writer Karen Servas. The most frequent purchases were tortillas and chips, followed by milk, turkey, fresh fruits and vegetables, and flour.
It helps to be located in one of the world’s most productive and diverse farming regions. Within a 100-mile radius of Modesto are thousands of producers of fruit, vegetables, nuts, dairy products, poultry and other foods.
The backers do not suppose that every last morsel can come from a certain region. California grows a fair amount of wheat, for example, but still relies on the Midwest and Great Plains for most of its supply. Atwell mentioned that he will soon switch some of his purchases to Arizona because that is a major source of vegetables in winter.
The federal nutrition standards for school meals allow canned fruit, including peaches from Modesto-area canneries, but the district is increasing its fresh offerings. They include pineapple and banana, which are nowhere close to local, and an especially tasty kind of persimmon from Madera County.
“Overwhelmingly, the kids were excited about the fuyu persimmons,” Atwell said.
The district kitchen on Carpenter Road has 38 full-time workers making about 24,000 meals each school day, mostly lunches but also a lot of breakfasts. The staff makes many of the dishes from scratch.
The district is connecting with local and regional food producers via Ag Link, an online service based in Ballico that serves 74 other districts in the Central Valley and near the coast.
“It’s a great opportunity when you get a large district to buy into the movement,” said Jana Nairn, who launched Ag Link with husband Rob Nairn last year.
The district, which has seven campus gardens, plans to add others at Elliott Alternative Education Center, Mark Twain Junior High School and Martone and Muir elementary schools.
“Kids will be involved in planning, building, planting, harvesting and, in some cases, food preparation,” the grant application said. “Maybe they will be inspired to start a tomato plant in a pot on the back porch for a salad, or plant tomatillo and pepper plants on the side of the house to make their own fresh salsa.”
The USDA provides up to $5 million in grants each year to help schools connect with local and regional food sources.
“In rural and urban communities across the country, farm-to-school programs teach students where food comes from while providing healthy foods that are grown locally on farms and ranches across the nation,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.