ALLEGANY, N.Y — You won’t have to look far to trace the source of the produce in Allegany-Limestone Middle-High School’s cafeteria this week.
The fruits and vegetables were grown just three miles away, harvested within the last two days and hand delivered by the farmers themselves.
“The big thing we stress is knowing where it’s grown, how it’s grown and who is growing it,” said Canticle Farm Manager Mark Printz, who delivered the bundle of spinach, carrots, potatoes and other produce to the cafeteria kitchen Wednesday morning. “It’s almost like a personal relationship.”
The delivery marked the beginning of a new partnership between the Allegany-Limestone Central School District and Canticle Farm. Going forward, the district will receive a large share — made up of fresh greens and root vegetables — once a week from the South Nine Mile Road community-supported agriculture farm.
It’s the kind of relationship New York state is trying foster between more school districts and farms, all in an effort to support local agriculture and provide healthier options for students.
Under the Farm-To-School program in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s No Student Goes Hungry Initiative, starting next school year districts that purchase at least 30 percent of their ingredients from New York farms and producers will receive up to a 25-cent reimbursement for lunches. Districts currently get reimbursed just 5.9 cents per meal.
“It’s a win-win for both sides,” said Allegany-Limestone Superintendent Tony Giannicchi, whose district is attempting to reach the 30-percent benchmark through its new partnership with Canticle Farm, as well as a partnership to begin this fall with a local beef producer.
Allegany-Limestone and other school districts throughout Cattaraugus and Allegany counties are being assisted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Allegany County, which received a $43,000 Farm-to-School grant last year.
In addition to Allegany-Limestone, the nonprofit agency affiliated with Cornell University is aiding the Hinsdale and Franklinville central school districts, as well as five school districts in Allegany County.
“My office is helping these schools make partnerships where they don’t always have the time or knowledge to,” said Cassandra Bull, Farm-to-School coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Allegany County. “Our job is knowing all the farmers in the area, knowing what they do, and so I definitely help to make that partnership.”
Bull said most districts she’s worked with already purchase anywhere from 22 to 26 percent of their products from New York farmers and producers. Typically about 18 to 22 percent of a district’s purchases are milk and another 2 to 4 percent are apples, both of which are commonly produced in New York.
“So they were pretty close, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to get that extra 8 to 4 percent,” she said. “Even though the state’s threshold is 30 percent, we’re trying to be really safe about it so we’re trying to get to around 38 percent.”
Allegany-Limestone’s weekly delivery from Canticle Farm is simply one step toward meeting the 30-percent benchmark. The large share for spring, which runs until June 11 and costs $35 a week, includes just enough produce for a family of four to five.
It’s the same bundle community members can sign up for at the beginning of each season and pick up from the farm once a week, a practice that accounts for about 50 percent of Canticle Farm’s sales.
“We decided to test it out with a large share just to get their feet wet and see if this is something that’s going to work for them and be sustainable for both sides,” said Kristin Dilorenzo, educator coordinator for Canticle Farm, who added that its the farm’s first-ever partnership with a school district.
Rhonda Herbert, Allegany-Limestone cafeteria manager, plans to use the Canticle Farm produce in both veggie bars set out for students as well as in various recipes used in the kitchen.
She’s particularly excited to use Canticle Farm’s purple carrots at Allegany-Limestone Elementary School.
“They turn their tongues blue. The kids are going to love them,” she said.
Plus, convincing students to like vegetables at an early age could improve their health as adults, Herbert added.
“I normally would not have bought spinach because a lot of the kids don’t eat spinach, but it’s giving them a taste test, it’s getting them to learn new products that a lot of the little kids don’t even know what they are,” she said.
Other benefits of buying local produce is significantly cutting down the time from harvest to consumption, Dilorenzo said.
That’s important considering fruits and vegetables often lose significant portions of their nutrient value in the days after harvest. Mature spinach loses about 80 percent of its vitamin C after three days in storage, according to a 2017 study published in journal Food Chemistry.
Eating local can also diminish your carbon footprint since it cuts down on the cross-country transportation of produce, Dilorenzo added.
For Bull, the biggest benefit of buying local is that it supports the local agricultural economy, which she noted is all the more important in rural areas like Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.
“So how can we reinvigorate a rural, sparse community? It’s through empowering the resources that we have, which is land, water and agriculture,” she said. “So I think if we want to revitalize Western New York, it’s through being smart with our purchasing power and buying local.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)