Farm-to-school advocates gather in Modesto

Inside a Modesto convention hall this week, people talked about the farm-to-school movement. Out in the parking lot, a chef grilled local chicken and asparagus for lunch.

Nearly 350 people turned out for a three-day event aimed at getting more wholesome food into student meals. Advocates said this would mean healthier kids, more income for farmers, and a lighter touch on the environment.

“Farm-to-school is all about connecting the classroom, the cafeteria and the community.” said Helen Dombalis, programs director and interim policy director for the National Farm-to-School Network.

She was the keynote speaker for Tuesday’s session at Modesto Centre Plaza. The event start Monday with tours of vegetable, dairy, nut, poultry and other food producers in and near Stanislaus County — and campus farms and gardens that supply some of the fare.

The network’s California branch put on the conference with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, based in Davis. They had help from cosponsors in the food industy, education and health care.

The chicken for Tuesday’s lunch came from Foster Farms in Livingston and was cooked up by Scott Soiseth, child nutrition director for the Turlock Unified School District. It alternated over the flames with Stockton-area asparagus.

Other school cooks served up dishes like minestrone, green salad, burritos and a version of tabouli (a whole wheat dish) with butternut squash.

The farm-to-school movement emerged in the 1990s out of concern that cafeteria meals had too much fat, salt and sugar and too little fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Supporters promote lower-far meat and dairy items and seek to keep processing of all foods to a minimum.

Not every school district, like Turlock, has a major chicken plant nearby. Nor can other parts of the nation match the abundance and diversity of food grown in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Even this region has to use canned, frozen or dried versions when fresh fruits and vegetables are out of season.

But conferees said the effort is worthwhile because it moves the nation beyond the “mystery meat” offerings of old.

“Industry is changing their entire practice in order to meet the institutional demand for local, sustainably grown food,,” said Sheila Golden, director of programs for the Davis group.

The movement had support from President Barack Obama, in both funding and policies calling for healthy school food. Advocates said they hope the Republicans now in charge will see its value.

John Holland: 209-578-2385