Farm, table meet at . . . school

Tour time

The Rappahannock County Farm Tour is 9 to 5 this Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 29-30). With nearly 20 venues on a self-guided tour of farms, wineries, orchards and more, the Tour is headquartered at the Sperryville Schoolhouse. Tickets are $5, available on tour days at the Schoolhouse, Narmada Winery and the Rappahannock Visitors Center, or online at farmtour.visitrappahannockva.com.

Okay, you try to get kids excited about vegetables.

Yes, the nutrition-, local food- and menu-related challenges at Rappahannock County Public Schools, like most American schools, are much more complicated than that – involving feeding hundreds of students and staff on a shoestring budget while meeting new and ever more stringent and complex federal school lunch regulations governing not only what kids should eat, but which kids should get a price break. And all of that directly impacts how much government funding the school system gets in return.

Nonetheless, a few weeks ago the school division’s director of nutrition services, Trista Grigsby, found herself discussing school nutrition issues for the fewer-than-1,000 public school students of little Rappahannock County with . . . ABC News. (The report, apparently produced for ABC’s evening news and “Good Morning America” morning show, had yet to air, as of this Wednesday.)

A cynic might say ABC drove out here because there’s so much green, farm-related, rolling-hills B-roll footage available on the way. But Grigsby, who helped start up the schools’ much-praised Farm-to-Table program before taking on “this $500,000 business, with 10 employees, that has to feed a thousand people a day and meet all the federal school lunch program guidelines,” has always been passionate about finding ways to use that reality – that people grow stuff in Rappahannock – to achieve results.

The sought-after results being that kids get more excited about vegetables, and other farm products, if they get to know how they’re grown, harvested, shipped and prepared for the table. Not to mention how each relates to the physical health of an individual, or the economic and spiritual health of a community.

Rappahannock County Public Schools nutrition services director Trista Grigsby is interviewed by an ABC News crew two weeks ago. Photo by Jan Clatterbuck.
Rappahannock County Public Schools nutrition services director Trista Grigsby is interviewed by an ABC News crew two weeks ago. Photo by Jan Clatterbuck.

But whether Diane Sawyer speaks the words “Rappahannock County” on-air later this week or later this fall, your opportunity to learn more about what sort of things have been lately occupying Grigsby and Jen Rattigan (her successor in the more knee-muddying job of coordinating the Headwaters Foundation-funded Farm-to-Table program), and their students, can come as early as this Saturday.

As part of the annual Rappahannock County Farm Tour, both the high school and elementary school will be hosting student-led tours, plant sales and demonstrations. Be there. (There’s more about the tour right here.)

“Oh, the kids love giving the tours,” Grigsby laughs, sitting with Rattigan at a picnic table amid the trees and thick garden beds of the elementary school’s courtyard garden (which, impressive as it is, pales next to the high school’s brimming raised beds and hoophouse operation, and F2T’s new hillside plot made available to the schools earlier this year by Mati Miller, the innkeeper across the highway at the Blue Rock Inn).

“For the tours, all we had to say to the students was, ‘How would you like to take some grown-ups around and tell them all about stuff they don’t know anything about?’, and that was it,” Grigsby said, she and Rattigan smiling and nodding.

“Trista carries on the spirit of getting local foods and student-grown foods into the school cafeterias,” Rattigan says, “which makes my job easier than it maybe was when she was doing it.” Grigsby, for her part, says the nutrition-services post has “given me newfound respect for all who have done it before me, and for the entire cafeteria staff. It is an amazingly difficult job.”

Rattigan has been encouraging other students who are not directly involved in the Farm-to-Table program’s horticulture and related offerings to be involved in the gardens: The art classes are finishing a mural this fall on the side of the hoophouse. Latin-language students came out and studied the Latin names of the species growing in the beds. Rich Hogan’s industrial-arts class students hope this year to further enhance the lovely garden shed and wash-house they started building two years ago at the high school (with wood donated to the schools by Chris Bird).

Farm-to-Table coordinator Jen Rattigan shows off one of numerous birdhouse squash high school students grew this year. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.
Farm-to-Table coordinator Jen Rattigan shows off one of numerous birdhouse squash high school students grew this year. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.

A good percentage of the food raised at the school is now served at both schools’ cafeterias, Rattigan says. Grigsby mentions the Food for Thought Fund developed by Rachel Bynum and Eric Plaksin of Sperryville’s Waterpenny Farm, who worked with Agricultural Extension Service agent Kenner Love to develop a fund that allows the school division to bring more local products onto cafeteria tables by helping pay the difference between local and non-local prices.

“Donations are gladly accepted to help us pull off Local Foods Week in November this year,” Grigsby adds, referring to the annual feat of serving both students and members of the public as much locally produced farm output as possible.

Local food purchases last year totaled $1,796 – a small fraction of overall food purchase costs – but progress is being made, Grigsby says. “In the case of apples, they are actually more affordable than apples purchased from a wholesaler, so it’s a win-win to use local apples. Williams Orchard was the only orchard to submit a local bid for apples this year, and we’re pleased to work with them.”

The Farm-to-Table program produced 104 pounds of produce in its second year (2005), with most of it going to students, the school cafeterias and the community at large, Grigsby says.

In 2011, that number had risen to 783 pounds, with about half going to the school cafeterias and the other half split between the schools’ culinary-arts classes and the Rappahannock Food Pantry.

“This figure doesn’t even include the 75 pounds of butternut squash Farm-to-Table horticulture students are growing over at the Blue Rock for the cafeteria as we speak,” Grigsby wrote in a follow-up email. “If we were to put a price tag of a modest $4 per pound on these products, that’s $9,882 worth of produce grown using organic methods that has come into the schools and to the people in the community who need it.”

On the other hand, Grigsby says, her hopes to integrate student and locally grown foods into students’ meals must, in the end, be tempered by current market reality.

“Yes, so we still buy lots of chicken nuggets,” she says. “If I don’t have chicken nuggets on the menu? Full-scale rebellion.”

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 534 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.