The agriculture commissioner eats local

Students at the Rappahannock County Public Schools are growing fresh and growing local, and Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Matt Lohr is coming to the schools today (Nov. 14) to see just how they do it.

Since this week is Virginia Farm to School Week, Lohr will tour the gardens at the elementary and high schools, to learn more about the school’s Farm to School initiatives, including Farm-to-Table, and the USDA Farm to School tri-county planning grant received last year. And then, since Thursday is Local Foods Day at the high school, the commissioner will be treated to a lunch of locally grown produce.

“The Farm to School program is extremely popular in Virginia, and for good reason,” Lohr said last month. “The children benefit by eating more fresh, local produce, as well as local dairy products and meats. Farmers benefit by getting new markets for their products and being able to sell directly to schools. The state as a whole benefits, too, by keeping food dollars in the local community.”

RCPS director of nutrition services, Trista Grigsby, approved this weeks’ local foods menu.

“This year we will be featuring a new USDA recipe we’ve never tried before using local ingredients: beef shepherd’s pie with local ground beef from Adams Custom Slaughter,” Grigsby said. “The chef’s salad will be filled with local vegetables from Waterpenny Farm and the Farm at Sunnyside. For fruits and veggies, we will have mashed butternut squash and coleslaw with squash and cabbage from Waterpenny Farm and a fresh apple from one of our local orchards — Lee’s Orchard, Williams Orchard or Thornton River Orchard.”

To honor local farmers, yesterday (Nov. 13) was “dress like a farmer day” at the elementary school, and students received local farmer trading cards showcasing farmers and farm equipment.

The mission of the Headwaters Foundation-supported Farm-to-Table Program, now in its ninth year, is to cultivate students who are good stewards of the earth and productive community members through classroom study of horticulture, cultivation of school gardens, and hands-on experiences at local family farms.

Environmental scientist Sarah Moore is the Rappahannock Farm-to-Table program coordinator.

“It’s hard to see the connection between what you’re eating and where it comes from, when you just buy your food from the grocery store,” Moore said, noting that one of the fundamentals of the program is to start kids young, by getting them involved with growing their own food and learning the natural processes that create food. “The idea is to make future stewards of the earth, that’ll grow healthy food — real food, not engineered food.

“And in growing their own food, lot of kids really love harvesting the gardens; picking the produce is their favorite part,” Moore added. “And when you get kids excited about swiss chard, it’s always good.”

The first-ever USDA Farm to School census, released by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) recently, showed that Virginia schools spent an estimated $104 million on school food in the school year 2011-2012, with nearly 11 percent of that amount  directed locally. Sixty-one percent of schools said they planned to purchase more local foods in the future.