A shipment of more than 2,000 Virginia apples is just a “small step” in Charlottesville City Schools’ efforts to bring locally grown food to all of its students.
A new monthly program, Local on the Line, adds one item sourced from the Local Food Hub’s partner farms to lunches served in all of Charlottesville’s public schools.
“I was looking to see what I could do to highlight local items on a regular basis,” said Carlton Jones, nutrition administrator for the city schools. “And I thought: why not start by serving something once a month?”
“We want to start small,” Jones added. “It’s really important that we make sure it’s done right.”
On Tuesday, Charlottesville’s school cafeterias served Granny Smith and Pink Lady apples from Crown Orchard Company, which owns Carter Mountain Orchard and Chiles Peach Orchard in Albemarle County.
Last month, Local on the Line served up a more complex dish: a potato hash with bell peppers and onions. The potatoes were sourced from Valley Farming in Rockingham County.
Jones plans to offer a mesclun salad made from local greens and cucumbers next month, and then finish the school year in May with local strawberries.
“The local items are a little more expensive, but it’s worth it,” Jones said. “It works for us.”
“What Carlton is doing to incorporate local items into the regular, everyday lunches is really exciting,” said Laura Brown, Local Food Hub’s chief of staff. “I think it paves the way for more local offerings in the future.”
Presenting local food as just another item on the lunch tray could make it more appealing to some students. But Jones said this makes it hard for Local on the Line to offer teaching moments about nutrition and sustainable farming.
“We have to work on getting [the information] out to the students and the community a little more,” he said. “It’s really important to let the students know what kind of food is being grown here.”
Jones expects the fall harvest to provide schools with more varied and plentiful food options when Local on the Line returns next school year.
“I think the fact that we started [in February], in the hardest time of the year, really shows the resiliency of the program,” said Brown.
Brown said that the apples served this week were picked in late fall and kept fresh in storage facilities at Crown Orchards and the Local Food Hub headquarters in Ivy.
“Our warehouse is still flush with a lot of delicious items, and there will be even more bounty available in the fall,” said Brown.
Local Food Hub also partners with the City Schoolyard Garden to supply ingredients for the city schools’ Harvest of the Month Program, which brings morning snacks to students in their classrooms.
Brown said these monthly programs will help Charlottesville City Schools gradually develop the capacity to prepare local items more regularly at its central food processing facility.
“We’re not going to go in and replace all the menu items with local ingredients right away,” said Brown.
Charlottesville City Schools staff members are preparing an application for a Department of Agriculture Farm to School grant, which could bring the school division up to $100,000 to scale up its local food initiatives.
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer encouraged the school division to apply for the Farm to School grant after speaking with famed chef and food activist Alice Waters last year.
At the School Board’s meeting with the City Council this month, Signer said he hoped Waters could offer additional guidance to the division in April, when she is set to return to Charlottesville to receive the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Citizen Leadership.
Jones said creating something like Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project, which helps to provide thousands of from-scratch meals daily to public schools in Berkeley, California, would be “quite an undertaking.”
“That’s something we really need to take our time and look at,” he said.
Jones has been meeting regularly with a committee of students at Walker Upper Elementary School to get recommendations for making healthier and tastier school lunches.
Piper Carter, a sixth-grader at Walker, said she and a friend were inspired to form a School Nutrition Committee when she was served a “rock-hard” chicken patty and lackluster lettuce at lunch earlier this year.
Walker faculty selected six more students to serve on the committee this year. Piper said their recommendations have resulted in “a lot of noticeable changes,” including fresher chicken, vegetable toppings on pizza and whole-wheat cookies that occasionally replace ice cream for dessert.
Justin Reyes, another sixth-grader on the committee, said Walker would not stop serving ice cream at lunch anytime soon. “A lot of kids would be mad at us,” he said, smiling.