Students at Capital High School gobbled up the fresh Caesar salads offered as a lunch option one day last week, cafeteria manager Barbara Lopez said.
The salads featured vegetables grown by local farmers and picked just the day before, she added.
“The kids love the salads, and the plums and pears,” Lopez said of the locally produced goods. “We go through tons and tons of fruit here. It’s way better than frozen vegetables and fruits.”
Santa Fe Public Schools has been “buying local” since 2001, said Elizabeth Cull, head of the district’s student nutrition department, which is responsible for delivering lunch daily to some 13,000 students. “We spend about $70,000 every year on local product.”
The initiative is part of a farm-to-school program that’s partially funded by the state. Santa Fe received close to $22,000 this year through the state initiative, Cull said.
In late August, the state Public Education Department announced it had given a total of $425,000 in grants to public school districts to add locally grown fruits and vegetables to school meals.
Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said the New Mexico Grown Fresh Fruit and Vegetable grant program and similar initiatives “are the future of school breakfast and lunch programs. They’re good for students’ health, good for our local farmers and good for our state’s economy.”
So far, 56 districts and charter schools have received funding through the program, with 27 of them participating in the farm-to-school initiative for the first time this year.
Danny Farrar, a farmer who runs Rancho La Jolla in Velarde, regularly delivers apples, cherry tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, onions, jalapeños and dill peppers to Santa Fe Public Schools.
“From a farmer’s point of view, it’s another market to sell the produce because you can only sell so much at the farmers market,” he said. “And from the kids’ standpoint, I like that they get to eat some good local food instead of some of the other stuff that they may get served.”
Besides supporting local farmers, Cull said, the fresh produce program “introduces [students] to the idea of how good it tastes when it was just picked a day ago. And we are introducing new shoppers for these farmers in the future.”
Nery Martinez, a farmer at Santa Cruz Farm and Greenhouses near Española, said the farm has been supplying food for the schools for about 15 years. The partnership offers the farm a regular source of income.
“You grow lettuce knowing it’s going to the schools rather than wondering if you are going to sell it,” he said. “You get an order every week, and it can be 40 to 50 pounds of lettuce, whereas you sell maybe 10 pounds of lettuce at the market in one week.”
Farrar, who graduated from high school in the early 1970s, said as a result of the program, students are eating better mealsl. He can’t remember what his school offered him all those decades ago, but, he said, “It wasn’t as good as it is now.”