Farm 2 School Mixer encourages schools, farms to work together

CHAUTAUQUA – For Chautauqua County residents, eating local means eating healthy.

Residents take pride in the county’s agriculture, yet so many ways to utilize local farms go unexplored.

This was the idea behind the Chautauqua County 2013 Farm 2 School Mixer hosted at Bellinger Hall of Chautauqua Institution on Monday.

The event was intended to serve as a way for farmers and food service employees for local schools to network, and also as an informational session on why both schools and farms can benefit from working together.

“You’re here because you’re a farmer, a (school employee) or a community member who is concerned about the future of our schools, students and farms,” said Ginny Carl-berg, Cornell Cooperative Extension.

This year’s event focused on networking opportunities. The information sessions which were covered included two panel discussions: Local food procurement and beginning a school garden, respectively.

The panel for the local food procurement discussion consisted of: Jeff Creager, Good Grass Farm; Mary Ellen Epolito, Fredonia Central School food service director; Walter Gaczewski, Jamestown Public Schools food service director; Karen Houser, Sinclairville Elementary School cafeteria manager; Jessica Runge, Roots and Wings Farm; and Rebecca Hamlet-Kapple, Hamlet Farms LLC.

This panel mostly discussed how local farms and schools work together to ensure every school is able to get the produce in the quantities it would like. However, there was some time spent on how communication between farms and schools could become more streamlined in the future.

“With the exception of farms that keep an inventory of their goods on their website, you’re pretty much going to need to call up a farmer to find out what they have available,” said Runge.

“However, what we’d like to do eventually is put together a separate website that focuses on food aggregation and distribution. Most farmers work together in the sense that, if I don’t have what you’re looking for, I’ll send you to someone who does – so this type of website would really just streamline that process. However, we’re still trying to find the right kind of software to do something like that.”

The second panel, which discussed the benefits of starting a school garden, included: Kerry Mihalko, Creating Healthy Places; Mike Jabot, SUNY Fredonia; Amy Anderson, Jamestown Public Schools; Shannon Rowe, Ripley Central School; and Heather Woodis, Chautau-qua County Farm Bureau.

The main idea that the second panel focused on was students are more likely to try a new vegetable if they contributed to growing that vegetable. And nearly every panelist agreed that such trends were easy to see unfold.

The panelists still agreed, however, that school gardens can be successful in other ways, even if some students are still stubborn to try new vegetables.

“Not 100 percent of everyone who works at a school will think the school garden is a great idea,” said Jabot. “I had a superintendent ask me what would happen if we created these school gardens and absolutely nothing grew. I told them that it would still be worth it. It gets the kids outdoors, engaging in hands-on learning. Every-one wants something to grow, but there are other reasons for doing school gardens other than just bringing fresh food into the cafeteria.”

In addition to the panels, the event also included two networking activities: Making a meal with your neighbor and Farm to School bingo.

The meal accompanying the event was prepared by Alex Gray, Athenaeum Hotel chef.