PE ELL, Wash. — It’s 6 a.m. and assistant cook Holly Woodward is slicing organic vegetables from a local farm to make salad for 180 students.
Meanwhile, head cook Missie Holmes, on the job since 3:30 a.m., wraps dough around a like number of hot dogs. She could order them premade, but the labor saves money, which helps pay for the fresh produce.
Kohlrabi has been a big hit and zucchini slices do well, said Holmes, the district’s food services supervisor. “Things you wouldn’t think you could get them to eat, they eat. If you start them early enough, they seem to adjust to it.”
The Pe Ell School District in Southwest Washington has been serving vegetables, fruit and dairy products from Washington farms for several years. The produce, which runs thin in the winter, supplements what the district buys through Food Services of America.
For some districts, like Pe Ell, many days are Taste Washington Day, a yearly event held in dozens of schools to celebrate healthy eating and agriculture.
It’s set this year for Oct. 1. Advocates hope that kids will eat vegetables, meet farmers and begin shaking their fondness for Twinkies.
The day also can be a test run for a Farm to School program, in which school districts contract directly with farmers and ranchers.
“Taste Washington Day is a really critical event for us. They (schools) can try it without a lot of pressure,” said Tricia Kovacs, the program’s coordinator at the Washington Department of Agriculture.
Turning a popular idea into practical action can be challenging, however.
The Riverview School District in east King County will serve 350 pounds of locally grown carrots, broccoli and other produce on Taste Washington Day.
Before then, FFA and horticulture students will spend two days washing, slicing and dicing.
“I couldn’t do it without their help because I don’t have enough staff,” said the district’s food services manager, Kay Wetli, who is also president of the Washington School Nutrition Association.
The labor required to cut and chop produce is just one obstacle. Local farmers and rancher must compete with food-service companies, financially and logistically, while school districts must address issues such as food safety, bidding practices, seasonal availability and federal nutrition rules.
“It takes a lot of dedication up and down the chain,” said Kai Ottesen, sales manager for Hedlin Farms, which sells carrots, beets, cabbage and other produce to the La Conner School District in Skagit County. “It’s a lot easier to make one phone call to one distributor.”
Farm to School was created in 2008 by the Legislature, which has provided sporadic funding since. The program may get a boost from the Healthiest Next Generation Council, an initiative launched this month by Gov. Jay Inslee to improve children’s health.
The council — a 50-member group that includes educators, health professionals, children’s advocates and agriculture representatives — will look at a wide-range of ideas, including expanding WSDA’s Farm to School program.
The council is expected to make recommendations to the Legislature in November.
Some school districts already have well developed Farm to School programs. On Taste Washington Day, the governor’s wife, Trudi Inslee, will visit the Wenatchee School District, which has contracted with about 10 regional farms for the past four years for fruits, vegetables and meat.
Neither the WSDA nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has firm numbers on the volume or value of food that local producers sell directly to schools. Both agencies rely on volunteer surveys to roughly measure the success of federal and state Farm to School programs.
A survey last spring by WSDA found that 63 percent of the school districts reported buying from a local producer in the past year.
A USDA survey found that the most-popular items bought from Washington producers are apples, pears, milk and carrots.
The WSDA also surveyed farmers and ranchers. Producers ranked helping children eat better, enhancing agriculture’s image and strengthening community relations ahead of having access to a steady and nearby customer as motives for being interested in doing business with schools.
“Anytime you get a carrot with the top on coming to a kid for a snack, that’s great for their health and great for a long-term investment in getting people to eat what we grow,” Ottesen said.
Dave Hedlin of Hedlin Farms said that the school market “certainly has to the potential to be significant.”
“I can safely say the agricultural community is committed to having healthy food in schools and so are the schools, if they can make it work,” Hedlin said.
School districts can’t expect Farm to School to cut costs, said Joan Qazi of the Washington State Sustainable Food and Farming Network.
“It’s not going to be cheaper, but it’s a lot easier than some initially thought,” said Qazi, the network’s Central Washington fresh food in schools coordinator
“It’s not all rosy. There are a lot of challenges,” she said. “There has to be a willingness on both sides to make Farm to School happen.”
Hedlin said an upfront investment by schools in locally grown produce could pay off in the long run.
“Certainly, if you’re tying to manage health care costs and keep kids healthy that is a pretty expensive Twinkie,” Hedlin said.