Norwich schools’ Farm-to-School program leads state fledgling program

Norwich — State Department of Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky remembers the school lunches he had growing up — bland soup, fake pizza and vegetables that were mostly “mush.”

Reviczky and other state Department of Agriculture officials got a close-up look Thursday at what Norwich students will be eating when school starts Aug. 31. Norwich students likely will remember their lunches too, especially when they bite into a crisp ear of corn or taste freshly steamed squash and freshly picked apples.

“There won’t be kernel on that corn remaining,” Thomas Mahan School Principal Donna Funk told the state officials. “How they enjoy it, especially the older students who never had corn on the cob for lunch before. Usually, it was just spooned onto the plate.”

Lunches changed in Norwich schools starting in 2012, Food Services Director Erin Perpetua said, when the food services program obtained its first matching Farm-to-School Farm Viability grant of $49,999. The grant and local matching funds purchased a freezer and food processing equipment. Food services officials reached out to local farms to purchase vegetables and some fruits and created partnerships with Groton and New London schools to sell surplus produce.

Norwich has the only fully equipped Farm-to-School processing kitchen in the state and one of only a few in New England, officials said Thursday. The state agricultural officials visited the Mahan School processing kitchen Thursday to learn how it works and to spread the word to other Connecticut school districts that feeding students locally grown food can be done.

“Norwich has created a successful model other school districts can follow,” Reviczky said. “We can help them do it.”

The department has a new round of Farm Viability grants this fall, with a November deadline to apply for matching grants of up to $49,999 to pay for equipment to launch a Farm-to-School program.

Norwich Public Schools used matching grants to purchase a large freezer at the Mahan School, a second outdoor freezer housed at the Bishop School, a small quick-freeze unit and the vacuum seal machine for bagged produce — 30 servings of cut squash per bag and 16 husked and cleaned ears of corn per bag.

A new $41,200 grant will purchase a large outdoor walk-in freezer-refrigerator unit for the Mahan School processing kitchen and an automated cutting machine to save time. The grant also includes marketing money to spread awareness to parents and the general public that the schools are buying produce from local farms for school lunches.

On Thursday, the state officials watched food service employee Florence Fonvil and hired high school students Hunter Decker, 16, and Anthony Starr-Barker, 16, husk corn from a seemingly endless pile – about 7,000 ears – from Malerba’s Farm in Norwich.

They wheeled the peeled corn into the kitchen, where more workers washed and cleaned off remaining fibers. Another worker cut stems and neatly packed the ears into bags. The corn is frozen raw and can be steam cooked inside the bags, preserving freshness and keeping out excessive moisture, Perpetua said.

Summer squash is cut into chunks and also is frozen raw. Winter squash, including bright orange butternut squash, is cooked, mashed, seasoned with cinnamon and brown sugar and then frozen.

“We have so much, we have to expand our storage,” Perpetua told the state officials, opening freezer doors to reveal the shelves crammed with frozen vegetables waiting for school to start.

Norwich gets vegetables from LoPresti’s Farm in Preston, Malerba’s in Norwich, Savitsky Farm in Colchester, Provider Farm in Salem and Our Acres Farm in Lebanon, and apples from Palazzi Orchard in Dayville. Apples are served whole throughout the fall and sometimes into January, Perpetua said.

“We do our menus based on what we have in here,” she said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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