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Concord schools turn to local agriculture to provide tasty meals for students

  • Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, work hard to load several of their Scottish Highlander Cattle from a pasture in Canterbury on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Miles Smith Farm is one of the local farms working with the Concord School District, supplying meat to area schools.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, work hard to load several of their Scottish Highlander Cattle from a pasture in Canterbury on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Miles Smith Farm is one of the local farms working with the Concord School District, supplying meat to area schools.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Bruce Dawson of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, works to secure a gate to load several of their Scottish Highlander Cattle from a pasture in Canterbury on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Miles Smith Farm is one of the local farms working with the Concord School District, supplying meat to area schools.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Bruce Dawson of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, works to secure a gate to load several of their Scottish Highlander Cattle from a pasture in Canterbury on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Miles Smith Farm is one of the local farms working with the Concord School District, supplying meat to area schools.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Bruce Dawson of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, works with Carole Soule to load several of their Scottish Highlander Cattle from a pasture in Canterbury on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Miles Smith Farm is one of the local farms working with the Concord School District, supplying meat to area schools.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Bruce Dawson of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, works with Carole Soule to load several of their Scottish Highlander Cattle from a pasture in Canterbury on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Miles Smith Farm is one of the local farms working with the Concord School District, supplying meat to area schools.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • The Concord School District is taking a farm-to-table approach, working with local farms like Miles Smith Farm in Loudon to supply some meat and Beans and Greens in Gilford to supply some produce.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    The Concord School District is taking a farm-to-table approach, working with local farms like Miles Smith Farm in Loudon to supply some meat and Beans and Greens in Gilford to supply some produce.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Sean Cloutier, 17, a senior at Concord High School, eats a taco in a bag, one of several newly introduced items on the school's lunch menu, on Thursday, September 19, 2013. The Concord School District is pushing for food from local farms.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Sean Cloutier, 17, a senior at Concord High School, eats a taco in a bag, one of several newly introduced items on the school's lunch menu, on Thursday, September 19, 2013. The Concord School District is pushing for food from local farms.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Kadence Tilton, 6, a first grader at Christa McAuliffe School in Concord, is given a choice between milk, water or both during lunch on Thursday, September 19, 2013. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Kadence Tilton, 6, a first grader at Christa McAuliffe School in Concord, is given a choice between milk, water or both during lunch on Thursday, September 19, 2013.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Piere Lavie, from France, works in the strawberry field belonging to Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford on Friday, September 20, 2013. Beans and Greens is one of the area farms supplying produce to the Concord School District food program.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Piere Lavie, from France, works in the strawberry field belonging to Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford on Friday, September 20, 2013. Beans and Greens is one of the area farms supplying produce to the Concord School District food program.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Plants take form in a green house at the Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford on Friday, September 20, 2013. Beans and Greens is one of the area farms supplying produce to the Concord School District food program and will move operations in to their green houses to continue production through winter months.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Plants take form in a green house at the Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford on Friday, September 20, 2013. Beans and Greens is one of the area farms supplying produce to the Concord School District food program and will move operations in to their green houses to continue production through winter months.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Gosia Bakowska, an intern from Poland, works in a green house planting seeds for new produce belonging to Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford on Friday, September 20, 2013. Beans and Greens is one of the area farms supplying produce to the Concord School District food program and will move operations in to their green houses to continue production through winter months.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Gosia Bakowska, an intern from Poland, works in a green house planting seeds for new produce belonging to Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford on Friday, September 20, 2013. Beans and Greens is one of the area farms supplying produce to the Concord School District food program and will move operations in to their green houses to continue production through winter months.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, work hard to load several of their Scottish Highlander Cattle from a pasture in Canterbury on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Miles Smith Farm is one of the local farms working with the Concord School District, supplying meat to area schools.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Bruce Dawson of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, works to secure a gate to load several of their Scottish Highlander Cattle from a pasture in Canterbury on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Miles Smith Farm is one of the local farms working with the Concord School District, supplying meat to area schools.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Bruce Dawson of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, works with Carole Soule to load several of their Scottish Highlander Cattle from a pasture in Canterbury on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Miles Smith Farm is one of the local farms working with the Concord School District, supplying meat to area schools.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • The Concord School District is taking a farm-to-table approach, working with local farms like Miles Smith Farm in Loudon to supply some meat and Beans and Greens in Gilford to supply some produce.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Sean Cloutier, 17, a senior at Concord High School, eats a taco in a bag, one of several newly introduced items on the school's lunch menu, on Thursday, September 19, 2013. The Concord School District is pushing for food from local farms.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Kadence Tilton, 6, a first grader at Christa McAuliffe School in Concord, is given a choice between milk, water or both during lunch on Thursday, September 19, 2013. <br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Piere Lavie, from France, works in the strawberry field belonging to Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford on Friday, September 20, 2013. Beans and Greens is one of the area farms supplying produce to the Concord School District food program.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Plants take form in a green house at the Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford on Friday, September 20, 2013. Beans and Greens is one of the area farms supplying produce to the Concord School District food program and will move operations in to their green houses to continue production through winter months.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Gosia Bakowska, an intern from Poland, works in a green house planting seeds for new produce belonging to Beans and Greens Farm in Gilford on Friday, September 20, 2013. Beans and Greens is one of the area farms supplying produce to the Concord School District food program and will move operations in to their green houses to continue production through winter months.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

In Concord’s school cafeterias, gone are the days of unappealing vegetable mush and suspicious-looking hamburger meat that comes from who knows where. This year, school lunch is going local.

In every cafeteria across the district, students will eat meat from Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, tacos and salsa from Mitchell’s Fresh in Bow, and fresh fruits and veggies from Beans and Greens in Gilford, Meadow Ledge Farm in Loudon and Autumn View Farm in Pittsfield.

The reason for the change is simple: “The closer we get to the farm, the fresher the food is, the better it’s going to taste when you serve it,” said John Lash, the district’s new food service director and the brain behind the new program.

Lash started working for the district July 1, and he worked all summer on an overhaul to the district’s school lunch program. He previously worked in Gilford for two years, where he ran a similar program on a much smaller scale. His goal is to give students healthier and more appealing options in hopes that will grow participation in the school lunch program. And by working with local farmers, the district is also keeping money in the local economy.

Beyond bringing in more local food, other changes this year include no more flavored milk (a change which has irked some high school students) and the optional addition of an 8-ounce bottle of water with every meal. Each cafeteria also has new recycling containers so the plastic bottles don’t create waste.

Communicating with parents, especially parents of elementary school students, is a key to increasing participation. Lash sent a letter to all parents about the changes at the start of the school year, and he said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The best responses came from parents who said they never had their children buy lunch in the past but planned to start this year. Participation is up so far this year in all of the elementary schools and Rundlett Middle School, Lash said. At the high school, where it is the hardest to change kids’ eating habits, school lunch sales remain the same as last year.

“This is a challenge for him to come and do that work in a large district, but we’re very enthusiastic about how it’s gotten off the ground,” Superintendent Chris Rath said.

As of last year, the district bought minimal local food. In previous years, most of the food came from the Federal Commodities Program, which provides free food to school districts. A disadvantage of that program is that districts have no idea where the food is actually coming from or its level of quality, Lash said. He hopes that eventually the district won’t have to accept any food from the commodities program.

“We can get a lot of it, but it’s not food that I’m comfortable serving. The hamburgers taste awful, who knows where it’s from,” he said, adding “the difference between the canned green beans and the fresh ones is so vast that I don’t want to take any commodity food.”

Now, all of the meat, from hamburgers, meatballs and tacos, comes from Miles Smith Farm. (Lash estimates the district will buy at least 8,000 pounds of meat from them this year.) The high school cafeteria is also now serving “Bag O’ Taco,” which includes meat, crushed chips, salsa, lettuce and sour cream mixed together in a bag and eaten with a fork. All of the ingredients aside from the meat come from Mitchell’s Fresh in Bow, and the new menu item is one of the most popular so far this year. Beans and Greens in Gilford is taking corn off the cob that the schools can freeze and use year-round. Last week, Meadow Ledge Farm picked peaches that were served to students the next day.

Fran Wyatt, head cook at Concord High School, said there’s a major difference in food quality between this year and last.

“I think it’s good: the kids are liking it,” she said. “You can see the difference in the meat.”

Beyond serving healthier food, dealing with area farms puts money back into the local economy, Lash said. He once heard a lecture by an economist who said that every dollar spent on local food can drive six to eight dollars back into the economy.

“If we spend $200,000 on local food this year, and that’s going to get repeated even five times, that’s really like us infusing a million dollars back into our local economy,” Lash said.

To keep the prices from rising in cafeterias, Lash gives local farms an estimate for what he can afford and only works with those that can meet his price. Carole Soule, owner of Miles Smith Farm, said she and her husband, Bruce Dawson, have worked hard to deliver a price that works for the schools. Lash began working with them when he served as food service director in Gilford’s schools. They’re willing to work with Lash to find acceptable prices because they believe in the program he’s created.

“We want kids to eat healthy food, it’s really part of our core mission,” Soule said.

Although Lash wants to put as much local food as possible on the cafeteria trays, he can’t buy everything local. Oranges and bananas, for example, don’t grow well in New Hampshire. Chicken will also be hard to buy locally because there are few farms that can provide the volume of meat he would need, he said. But he plans to continue experimenting and finding creative ways to improve food quality.

He even hopes the model he’s developing at Concord High will teach other schools how to bring local food into their cafeterias, too.

“I want this to be replicable,” he said. “I want other school districts to say ‘Wow, if you guys are doing this on such a huge scale, then we should be able to do this on a smaller scale.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

Legacy Comments4

Great story! And I'm proud to teach in a school with an excellent food service staff who regularly incorporates locally-sourced produce and won an award last year from the Federal Govt. for their healthy food initiatives.

wow.. finally someone who gets it! I've refused over the years to allow my kids hot lunch at schools. Some of the menu choices last year at their school (not concord) for lunch was French toast sticks, pizza as much as twice per week, or yogurt boats. There typically is no thought into the menu. Yup Pizza today with greenbeans. Why not a pizza with a salad? Why not spaghetti with a salad? Why not a fresh fruit bowl? I hear people say... you can't serve whole chicken on a bone, its not safe! my kids have eaten meat off bones the majority of their young lives... never an issue. I'm glad this school can make their own meatballs! As close to home-cooked as you can get. Glad to hear schools are getting rid of the war ration style food.

I'm glad to hear that the kids are eating the "non-war ration style" food. It really comes down to, "Will the kids eat the food." Sounds like they will.

From Humber River Hospital Foundation in California: "Many individuals are very hesitant to consume chocolate milk because they feel as though it lacks nutrients or is extremely high in fat. This is a common misconception of the product because whether the milk you drink is skim, 1%, 2%, homogenized, or chocolate milk—you get the same 16 essential nutrients. You receive the same amount of vitamin D, protein, and calcium in chocolate milk as you would in white milk. However, while still low in fat, the fat and sugar content does increase slightly in chocolate and is less in pasteurized milk. Nevertheless chocolate milk contains no more sugar than unsweetened apple juice and still remains a low-fat beverage. The additional calories you find in chocolate milk are rich in nutrients and minerals making them healthy calories in your diet. Research has shown that kids that choose chocolate milk instead of pops or juices will end up drinking more milk overall instead of other nutrient poor beverages, thus improving their diet overall". Just some "food" for thought!

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