Eat your veggies

Chico Food System Project serves up fresh, local produce

FRESH HELPING <br>Logan Simmons, a 5-year-old Rosedale Elementary School student, piled his plate with farm-fresh food at the Slow Food Feast at the CARD Center Sept. 16.

Logan Simmons, a 5-year-old Rosedale Elementary School student, piled his plate with farm-fresh food at the Slow Food Feast at the CARD Center Sept. 16.

photo by Tom Angel

From the farm: In 1910, 41 cents from every dollar spent on food in the United States went to the farmer. Now, only 9 cents does.

School lunches are starting to sound a lot more appetizing.

Picture, if you will, a salad bar and smoothies made almost completely from products hand-selected from Chico’s Saturday Farmers’ Market.

That was the example of the ideal school lunch put forth Sept. 16 by organizers of the “Slow Food Feast” held at the CARD Center. The event was the fourth in a series of efforts—the last was at the Vina Monastery—by the Chico Food System Project to educate people about fresh, healthful foods and get them closer to their farmer neighbors in the Chico area.

The title, “Slow Food Feast,” is a reference to what would be the opposite of the “fast” food that pervades Americans’ diets. The group’s goal is a return from a global, industrial agricultural market to one that’s fresh and local.

Students from the Butte Culinary Academy, led by Chef Micheal Iles, made black-bean-and-corn salad, dilled potato salad, pasta salad, focaccia bread and an impressive array of “vegetable bouquets.”

The day before, Iles was cruising the downtown market for produce; then, he and his students transformed the bounty into a feast for the eyes and stomach.

“It’s a blast,” Iles said. “This is the kind of food that kids should be eating in school.”

A huge salad had become a colorful happy face, with string beans for eyelashes and a crooked, sweet-potato nose.

While Charlette and Ari Naiman, ages 6 and 3, admired one of the sculptured food faces, their father excitedly showed off a book called Healthy School Lunch Action Guide. “I try to serve my kids healthy foods,” said Steven Naiman, who was among the about-75 attendees at the Sunday event.

Dave Miller, owner of Miller’s Bakery of Yankee Hill, has emerged as a leader of the group, which includes members ranging from growers to a Chico State University agriculture professor to representatives from government agencies like WIC and the 5-a-Day program.

Miller had attended an “ecofarm” conference in Monterey, where he learned about schools that use a farmers'-market model to buy their produce for lunches and snacks. That idea matched Miller’s values, so he worked to make it happen.

“Unless you’re acting locally, there’s only so much you can do to help the farming situation in general,” Miller said. “Right now, with our food buying habits, there’s not much we can do.”

A positive change, he said, would be for the nation to pick local and fresh over imported and cheap. A start would be with institutions like school districts.

Joel Adema, food service supervisor for the Chico Unified School District, is part of the Chico Food System Project and said he’s eager to boost the district’s local buying power—if it’s convenient and pencils out.

“We buy quite a bit [locally],” he said, mentioning kiwis, apples and mandarin oranges. “The problem is cost and also what’s available. … [Small farms] just don’t produce enough. When we need 50 cases of a product, that would probably wipe out a year’s supply for some of our local growers.”

Still, Adema said the goal is to buy locally and, beyond that, from California and the United States, “when available.”

“When you buy stuff locally, it helps our local economy,” he said. The CUSD gets grants for nutritional education, which is incorporated into lessons like math and geography to “get the kids aware of where the food’s coming from, geography-wise.”

The Chico Food System Project is hoping to coordinate farmers to make buying local easier, creating a “broker"-type situation where someone would round up the produce a buyer—such as the CUSD, a retailer or a restaurant—would need and act as a go-between.

“It’s really difficult to approach it from the angle of ‘this is what you should do,'” Miller said of the ethics of buying local. “If it’s not convenient, it just won’t happen.”

Cindy Maderos, a caterer and member of the Chico Food System Project, said she uses local products “as much as I can.” She said that since celebrity chefs started singing the praises of shopping the farmers’ markets, “most chefs are trying to carry that on.”

The keynote speaker at last weekend’s event was Jered Lawson of the Food Systems Project in ultra-progressive Berkeley. (The other scheduled speaker, Michelle Masceranhas, of Santa Monica, couldn’t get a flight up.)

Lawson said entities such as school districts are often working against bureaucracy and a requirement that the food program pay for itself. But the Catch-22 is that kids aren’t as likely to eat the more healthful foods even if they’re offered.

And the children’s lunch hour has been gradually eaten away by the state: Many Chico children have only 20 minutes to choose and eat their food, and it takes younger students a long time to decide what they want from an unfamiliar salad bar.

The three challenges are to get students interested in the salad bar, round up money to pay for higher-quality produce and work to improve the food service infrastructure in schools, Lawson said.

“The first word of advice is to start with strawberries,” he smiled. “Nobody will turn away a fresh, organic strawberry.”

At Malcolm X Elementary School, in the Bay Area, 80 percent of the students chose the salad bar over the regular offerings, although that evened out to 50-50 after the novelty wore off, Lawson said. “The salad bar was literally stormed by students.”

After the talk, smoothies were served. Carol Lam, who coordinates the 5-a-Day Power Play program through the University of California Cooperative Extension, said, “If we put [fruits] in a smoothie, they don’t realize they’re eating them.”

Iles, the chef, is optimistic that the project will progress to the schools and benefit local farmers at the same time. “I’m hopeful. There’s no reason that it shouldn’t happen.”

Miller said, “If you present a viable option for area growers, they will leap at it.” He pictures mostly small, family growers as opposed to the bigger farms that already have a market lined up. “The smaller the farm, the more responsive they are.”

Margie Smith watches over the garden at Forest Ranch Elementary School. Several schools in the CUSD have grant-supported gardens, from which they learn and feast.

Smith, dipping creatively cut veggie sticks into ranch dressing, said the garden is “coming along quite well.” The other day, the students had a huge harvest of tomatoes. “They wash them in class and eat them, right off the vine.”

The school has also gotten the OK from the state Department of Agriculture to use the food grown in the garden in the cafeteria. Smith said the students are even thinking of packaging and selling the produce to raise money for the garden.

Adema, the CUSD’s food service chief, eyed a salad’s bell-pepper eyes hungrily. He thinks the idea of a farmers'-market salad bar would work best on a small scale, planned well ahead and “roving” from school to school as “a treat.”

“It’s exciting just to be involved in it,” he said.

There was a touch of irony in the situation, because fresher food in schools is something everyone wants; it just takes some doing to put it all together.

Miller reflected: "I guess local growers don’t realize that the school district would be interested."