Keeping it fresh and local at New London schools
New London — When the major players of the district's farm-to-school movement get together to highlight their success, naturally, they break bread: fresh focaccia, prepared by students from New London High School's culinary program, with a side of local roasted cauliflower and local butternut squash soup, crafted in cooperation with Norwich and Groton schools.
The showcase at New London High School Saturday was sponsored by FRESH New London, a community farm and educational hub that has worked with thousands of students since their inception 11 years ago, and featured presentations by groups who are working to promote local and organic food in New London schools.
Lunch was organized around each of the speakers, giving the attendees an opportunity to share information and ideas for collaboration.
"We really think New London could build a model district ... there's quite a lot going on in this district and nobody knows all of it," said Arthur Learner, founder and director of FRESH.
Their progress is reflected in community gardens that have been built largely with volunteer labor at every school in the city — and the sheer quantities of local produce being purchased by New London High School.
Those quantities have grown from about $500 a year to nearly $16,000 of greens, apples and other assorted vegetables said Samantha Wilson, the director of food service for the district.
"I already anticipate that number doubling for next year, which is amazing," Wilson said.
However, that only helps if the students are actually eating the fresh produce, which is where groups like the Food Corps comes in.
The Food Corps joined the school in a groundswell of support for New London's farm-to-school food program in 2013, and has made food tasting a central part of their effort.
Second-year Food Corps member Lucy Lyman calls it the "holy grail" of the program, which helps students who are skeptical or unfamiliar with some fruits and vegetables become comfortable with them.
"I give kids little itty-bitty sample cups because they're a lot less intimidating to try for their first time, so if they try that in a really fun and exciting environment ... and when they see it in the lunch line, they'll be so much more willing to try it again," Lyman.
Expanding access to food beyond the school is also a feature of FRESH, which students like junior Chloe Murphy, who attends the Science and Technology Magnet High School, have participated in for three years.
They make dishes like apple and kohlrabi coleslaw and distribute them to areas of New London that might not have good access to fresh food, through mobile food markets.
"Kids come up and taste them ... it's really just about exposure. So if we do bring the food into the cafeteria, they aren't like 'Eww, what's that?'"
Getting kids engaged in research about their own food in the classroom is what drew Charles Mulligan, a teacher at the science and technology high school, to partner with Chef Thomas Johnson's culinary program.
Mulligan's environmental science students monitor the system efficiency of several aquaponic and hydroponic systems and then transferring the produce to the student-run Whaler's Cafe, taught by Chef Tomm.
FRESH helped him clear an outdoor garden area, set up some of the growing equipment and the technical aspect.
"I don't think I realized how extensive the networks were until I learned about FRESH," Mulligan said.
As the presentations wrapped up, Wilson said the school's expansion into local and healthy produce in the next few years will be the product of each organization that has contributed.
"We just keep growing," she said.
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