School is about education. Reading, writing and arithmetic, right?
Yes, but for the past week the children at Cordley School have gotten an education in something they've been studying since before they could read or write.
While lunch couldn't normally be called a class, per se, on Friday at the Lawrence elementary school, 1837 Vt., it is most certainly a lesson.
That's when the school's 316 students will be treated to one of the more memorable meals of their formative years.
Lasagna stuffed with from-scratch noodles, whole-wheat bread sticks made with organic flour, a salad bar teeming with just-picked vegetables and a honey-sweetened strawberry-rhubarb crisp.
Even more satisfying than the menu? The full plate of education the children have received even before Friday's first bite. The lunch, prepared from scratch with nearly all local ingredients, is actually the culmination of days of education brought to the students by the Farm-to-School program.
The program, headed by Lawrence resident Linda Cottin, is a full-scale learning experience involving classroom presentations, hands-on participation, and, of course, lunch.
Last Thursday, program organizers and local farmers visited the children in class to teach them about the food they are eating, its origins and why eating fresh, locally grown food is important for growing bodies. Then, this past weekend, children took part in two separate farm field trips - one to gather eggs and the other to pick strawberries, both for use in Friday's meal. And today, students will use those eggs, along with local flour, to help make the noodles for the meal's centerpiece lasagna.
The series of events is meant to teach children that their food doesn't sprout in the grocery store's aisles and that there's more to life than fiestada pizza day. But it also has the added bonus of proving that a school lunch can be made with fresh, local ingredients says Rick Martin, executive chef at Free State Brewery and head chef for the lunch.
"I would like for my child to have better choices at school," Martin says. "There's still a lot of high-fructose corn syrup, there's still a lot of soda pop and ranch dressing and processed food, and I think all the children, including my own deserve to have wholesome food choices and especially local food choices that can help our community both in an economic way and just in a sustainable sort of way. That's the ultimate goal."
Joining forces for kids
Cottin started planning the project last fall, suggesting to Principal Scott Cinnamon that the school use leftover funds from a project her business, Cottin's Hardware, helped supply, to treat Cordley students to a locally produced lunch.
The idea took off and Cottin soon recruited fixtures of Lawrence's local food community including Martin, Nancy O'Connor, nutrition educator and outreach coordinator at The Community Mercantile, Dana Hangauer, catering coordinator for Pachamama's, and a Slow Food USA advocate along with Martin, Mike Ryan, assistant farm manager at Johnson County Community College student farm and others. Once the group started to come together, so did the event: an extended lesson in food, culminating in a lunch the students had a hand in, literally.
Ryan says he got involved not only because he's a farmer, but because he's a parent. He says we owe it to the next generation to teach them about what they're putting into their bodies and that school lunch affords parents and teachers the opportunity to do that in an educational setting.
"I think the 'novelty' of convenience has created a big disconnect between consumers and their food, in large part during my lifetime. As an adult, it's hard to watch another generation grow up with that disconnect," Ryan says. "I think we owe it to future generations to teach them to eat well, and to eat properly. Every step in the process counts, and I think it says a lot that something like this can actually be assembled."
A national movement
The event's timing works out not only with the beginning of the local harvest but also with a sudden national interest in what our children are getting in their school cafeterias. That attention comes from several outlets, but the most high-profile ones are first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative to fight childhood obesity and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" program that chronicled his efforts to change the eating habits of school children and adults in Huntington, W. Va.
"That was a bonus. We didn't predict that one," says Cottin of Oliver's show, which has been called both controversial and inspiring. "We were very fortunate that just happened right along side what we were doing. I think that just opens up a new window of opportunity and I think it raises the awareness of many people that may not have been thinking about this before."
On a local and a national level, it's a movement that's hard to ignore, and the group wants to make sure Lawrence doesn't let this event fade as soon as the biodegradable plates are headed for the compost heap. Not only will there be a round-table discussion following the lunch to talk about the viability of the program in Lawrence and the state, but the group is hopeful it will be able to bring the Farm-to-School program to other schools in the fall.
"We hope to possibly open up this information to distribution to other areas and we're hoping to talk with the Department of Agriculture and the Kansas School Board in trying to encourage more communities in Kansas to pursue the same type of opportunity," says Cottin, who notes the group isn't the first to broach the subject. "We would like to see a state-wide program that has the resources and the contacts and the information so that all schools in Kansas can begin to educate kids on the difference between whole food, real food versus processed food and the importance of eating locally and seasonally."
Farm-to-School Lunch Menu and select ingredients
Vegetarian Lasagna: Local handmade pasta from 715, Central Soy tofu, local vegetables and Alma cheese.
Beef Lasagna: Local handmade pasta from 715, M & J Ranch beef, local vegetables, Alma cheese and béchamel sauce.
Gluten-Free/Dairy-Free Lasagna: Central Soy tofu and local vegetables.
Whole-Wheat Breadsticks: Local Acme flour.
Salad Bar: Local produce including mixed greens, tomatoes, onions, radishes, turnips, snap peas, carrots, strawberries and hard-boiled eggs, served with locally made vinaigrette and ranch dressings from Pachamama's.
Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp: Wohletz Farm strawberries picked by Cordley students, rhubarb from JCCC's student garden and Anthony's Beehive honey.
Milk: Iwig Family Dairy milk.