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Superintendent defends South Whidbey schools' ‘local’ foods amid criticism

Pa Lee of Snohomish answers questions about her radishes, carrots, kale and beets. South Whidbey Elementary School students Brionna Blouin, Hailey Doyle, Trinity Thiry, Avian Graham, Rachael Dougherty, Faith Gran and Paige Bruning favor the food most known to them — carrots.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Pa Lee of Snohomish answers questions about her radishes, carrots, kale and beets. South Whidbey Elementary School students Brionna Blouin, Hailey Doyle, Trinity Thiry, Avian Graham, Rachael Dougherty, Faith Gran and Paige Bruning favor the food most known to them — carrots.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — The local farm-to-school program on South Whidbey is not so local.

At least, that’s what the school district’s Fresh Food in Schools representative said. Acacia Larson, the Western Washington coordinator for Fresh Food in Schools, said South Whidbey’s use of Washington-grown produce was “not great so far.”

“We either need to put some pressure on Chartwells to get Washington produce … or work with Chartwells to bring in some Washington-grown foods through its channels,” Larson said.

The South Whidbey School District’s food service vendor, Chartwells, organized the Meet the Farmer Day in late November at South Whidbey Elementary School. The farmer was Sno-Country Farm owner-operator Pa Lee from Snohomish, who brought a heaping of pulled-that-morning carrots, radishes, kale and beets. Lee’s produce had never been offered in South Whidbey schools prior to Nov. 29.

“I just picked them a half hour before I came,” Lee said of her vegetables, still wet from rinsing the soil off them.

The food at the event was fresh and local. But one parent criticized the Meet the Farmer program as a facade to cover the lack of local, fresh vegetables during the other 179 school days. Miriam Coates, a former board member for Whidbey Island Nourishes, said the event was the first time the school district offered fresh, Whidbey vegetables.

Some students agreed with her. Fifth-grader Sawyer Mauk described the usual vegetable dishes as, “mush that kind of looks like ground up peas.”

Superintendent Jo Moccia defended Chartwells and the quality of the district’s meals. She disagreed with the notion that “local” is solely defined by Washington state boundaries. Cost effectiveness was also at issue.

“We try to do it at a level that is reasonable,” Moccia said. “Where can you get a $3 meal?”

Other students in the kindergarten to fifth grade school were taken with the fresh and sometimes exotic food. Kale was the first offering in the line, with students being promised (falsely, one girl said) that it would taste like popcorn.

Josh Marks, a third grader, enjoyed the stir fry of green onion, red cabbage, onion, cabbage and bell pepper.

“It was awesome,” Josh said.

Local foods in schools is not a state mandate for the South Whidbey School District. It’s an option the district and the school board have pursued and encouraged their food service vendor to employ.

“Our priority is to have a nutritious meal that is affordable,” Moccia said.

More local food in the schools would require a seasonal menu. Apples and carrots don’t grow in Washington year-round. The benefits of supporting Washington and Whidbey Island farmers, Larson said, should warrant the lunch menu change.

“It would be really easy to pick a few things and always get it from Whidbey or Washington,” she said.

“It would be really nice to represent the Whidbey farming community in the schools.”

Food service for the district was originally designed to be a balanced cost between revenue and expense. Now, the district loses money for providing free and reduced lunch, which nearly 30 percent of its students receive.

Chartwells’ $269,000 food service contract with the South Whidbey School District ends in August 2013. The school district put out a request for proposal this summer to see if other food service vendors are interested and cheaper than Chartwells, which has been the provider for the school district since August 2009.

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