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Updated: Thursday, 17 Jan 2013, 6:20 PM CST
Published : Thursday, 17 Jan 2013, 4:08 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - Students attending many Austin Independent School District schools love their fresh vegetables at lunch period, according to its internal chef. That’s because the food services department is renewing a commitment to sourcing fresh, local foods even if it costs a bit more, said Steven Burke.
Burke, the district's food services manager, said that if you’re buying by the season, the cost is worth the investment as well as reaching the City of Austin’s ideal of sustainability.
“There is a little extra labor that’s involved. So we have to do more training because we’re taking items that would probably come in already pre-cut up or already washed and frozen, or fresh frozen or fresh and thawed," he said. “So there’s a bit of labor that goes into it.”
Four years ago, Burke began looking for local farmers who would sell produce to his school cafeterias. Now, the program has expanded to 47 of AISD’s 119 schools. That’s about 65,000 meals a day.
Why not more? Burke says it’s a factor of the volume of produce available and the ability to train food services staff which currently number 760 employees at AISD.
Burke says interest in the farm to table model has prompted interest from the Texas Association for School Nutrition and other food service directors working with school districts. In fact Burke says he constantly receives emails to his "cafeteria chef" Flickr account from all across the nation.
Not all school districts are able to take on this model of sustainability. John Lash is with Farm to Table that works with AISD. It sells food to school districts as well as Central Texas restaurants and focuses on produce that is grown within 150 miles.
Lash said some ISDs, while interested in sourcing locally, are locked into contracts with nationally-based food service providers or are dealing with budget concerns where microwaved frozen peas on the cafeteria tray for example, are the best that can be offered to students while still meeting state nutritional standards.
In Central Texas, Hays Consolidated Independent School District and Leander ISD are two school districts that responded to KXAN’s request for information about their food services programs.
Hays CISD’s Tim Savoy said the district’s produce company is Ferris Joseph Produce in Lockhart which buys locally as much as possible.
“However, the items that we get a lot of and/or that need to be a specific size (for example fresh apples) need to be similar in size since we use them all year long (so they) are often helped out with non-local produce,” he said.
Savoy said the district will also buy similar items throughout the year that are not always in season locally like lettuce, tomatoes and oranges. He says it is not really a question of price as much as availability.
“The benefits are huge for all parties when we can buy locally and we recognize that. Local economy being a big one, and organic, locally-grown foods are also said to have health benefits in terms of (helping kids cope better with) allergies,” Savoy said.
Leander ISD’s Veronica Sopher said the district does use Farm to Market produce through its Commodity program which is locally grown, as well as the DOD Produce program which also focuses on locally/regionally/US only grown products. This has been ongoing for several years.
Sopher told KXAN, “We have met with Farm to Table in the past but have not purchased from them as yet. Prices are twice what any other produce is usually. We want to use them to ensure we are always offering local produce, we just want to ensure it makes sense budget wise so they are currently under consideration.”
As for the young ‘customers,’ he serves every school day in Austin, Burke said some have actually met farmers who have come to AISD schools through the local non-profit Sustainable Food Center , or SFC.
The SFC's Susan Leibrock said they started the farm to schools program in 2007 as a pilot project. At that time, the Center's 'Spouting Healthy Kids' project partnered with AISD staff including Burke to identify those farmers interested in sharing their knowledge with the kids. Leibrock said many of those farmers already attended the weekly, year-round SFC Farmers' Market in downtown Austin and other local venues.
Burke said those farmers are able to tell the kids ‘Hey, we’re growing this stuff for you (to show) where the beets came from, or where the butternut squash came from.” That way he said they learn what it looked like before it was turned into the food they eat on the plate.
At the school cafeterias, there are even signs under each item saying where it’s grown, and a brief explanation about what it is.
“We think that’s pretty neat, because the kids actually do take a look at it and say ‘oh neat. It’s being grown here in Texas,’” Burke said.
Another benefit Burke says of buying fresh produce, is that there is less waste because they’re able to bring in the items and not have to order a large amount frozen. He says his cafeteria staff are just
using and cooking as they go. And they’re batch cooking small amounts at once to keep the product freshest.And Burke insists fresh-picked, usually within 24 hours equals a recipe for a powerful fuel. “Anything fresh broccoli, fresh beets, the vitamins that they’re getting in there… it’s way more than any energy drinks (the students) are going to consume,” he said.
The system at AISD is not designed for only local produce of course. Burke still substitutes non seasonal items, joking he can’t work true miracles. “I’m a cafeteria chef,” he said. “I’m not a chef at the Four Seasons or anything like that. My plate’s a tray.”
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