Feeding hungry minds and growing bodies at Keene Central School
Photograph by Ben Schuschultze
“Miss Perkins, can I get seconds?” asked the kindergartner, raising her hand.
“Yes, you may.”
Permission granted from her teacher, the student jumped up from the table and got back in the lunch line. Sloppy Joe day at Keene Central School, when the kitchen staff prepares soft bread buns smothered in rich, ground-beef chili, is always popular. The girl didn’t care that the meat was raised locally, or the sauce contained tomato puree the cooks preserved themselves over the summer, and butternut squash grown on a nearby farm. In her words, it just “tasted good.”
The National Farm to School (F2S) Network improves access to local foods in eligible school systems, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). On the state level, the “No Student Goes Hungry” initiative encourages districts to purchase at least 30 percent of their ingredients and products from New York growers. (These school-supported programs are modeled on pilot projects like Edible Schoolyard, created by chef Alice Waters in 1995.)
The original Adirondack Farm to School Initiative was founded in 2013 by the food service director at the Saranac Lake Central School District; presently, the Cornell Cooperative Extension for Essex County has absorbed the initiative and continues to expand to more schools under a new set of grants. Multiple districts within the park boundaries now participate in a range of “edible education” programs, and what shows up on the cafeteria menu is augmented through such hands-on activities as school gardens, farm visits and cooking classes. Schroon Lake Central raises chickens. Willsboro Central has a composting system. Boquet Valley Central, in Westport, and Yandon-Dillon Educational Center, in Mineville, feed local pigs with vegetable scraps. At Keene Central, students grow pea shoots in hydroponic beds and learn to forage in outdoor classes on “Forest Fridays.” All are designed to promote healthier eating patterns and impact family purchasing in a region where food insecurity remains high.
“We have students who bulk up on Friday, and then eat a lot more again on Monday. That’s usually an indicator there’s not much at home,” said Julie Holbrook, who started as the cafeteria manager at Keene Central in 2004, and has since expanded her food service director role to six more North Country schools. Local farmers frequently reach out to her when they have a surplus; one offered her a low price per pound because he felt strongly about feeding kids; others contribute because they have children in the schools. Most of the student population Holbrook serves eats free breakfast and lunch: of her schools, all but Keene qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision grant that targets high-need, low-income areas. Yandon-Dillon and the William A. Fritz Educational Center, in Plattsburgh, have the highest poverty levels, with over 90 percent of students qualifying for SNAP, Medicaid or direct certification in the NSLP. “The access to good food is harder than you think,” said Holbrook. “So when I talk to students, I tell them, ‘Let’s call your lunch ‘dinner’ and offer them excuses to fill up, like maybe your parents are too busy to cook or you’ve got team sports after school, but in truth a lot of kids don’t go home to much food at all.”
Taped to a cinderblock wall in the cafeteria kitchen at Keene Central is a bumper sticker that reads: “No Farms, No Food.” On a June morning shortly before the end of the school year, Jennifer Wright set loaves from the oven on cooling racks. Trays of blueberry muffins already rested on the counter. Her vinyl apron was cheerfully decorated with cartoonish cupcakes. Wright arrives at 6:30 every morning to prep breakfast and bake the cookies, cakes, granola bars and sandwich bread for the school’s 159 students. She researches many of her baked goods online and keeps a recipe box with index cards of time-tested cakes and breads.
Shannon Shambo slipped on oven mitts to transfer sheet pans of bubbling hot rhubarb crisp, carefully navigating the short flight of stairs to another prep area behind the cafeteria’s counter display. Jocelyn Lopez set up the salad bar and positioned racks filled with “dunkers”—buns loaded with grated mozzarella cheese—next to a grill station for quick turnaround. The storeroom was stacked with #10 cans of government-issue applesauce, peaches and beans; supersize bags of Tostitos; and tins of cocoa. These are backup supplies for days when orders don’t arrive. Depending on the season, the kitchen works with salad greens, carrots and onions from Keene Valley’s Wild Work Farm and yogurt from North Country Creamery in Keeseville; beef from Donahue Farm near Malone; tomatoes from Juniper Hill Farm, in Wadhams; or rhubarb harvested from the school’s own garden.
Cooking from scratch cuts waste and saves the school system money. A case in point: baking muffins in the kitchen costs three cents per unit, much less than the wholesale price of 50 cents for pre-packaged snacks trucked into the Adirondacks. Lunch fees are low: grades K through five pay two dollars, grades six through 12 are charged 25 cents more, and 33 percent of students are eligible for the reduced-fee or free-meal programs. There is no lunch shaming at Keene Central.
“We usually try to serve one hot vegetable a day to give them a choice,” said Shambo, scooping crisp into individual bowls. “Yesterday was sticky chicken with peppers and sweet potatoes. Somebody even said, ‘My tray is so bright!’”
“This was the first year we made shepherd’s pie and meatloaf,” added Lopez, arranging bottles of water and juice in a cooler case. “Last month, we borrowed the teriyaki chicken recipe from another school. We try to make stuff the kids like to eat at home, but it’s really hard when you have K through 12, so that’s how today’s lunch came about. The older kids really like Sloppy Joes but the little kids not so much, just bread and cheese makes them happy. A senior boy could eat eight dunkers and still be hungry. It’s really challenging trying to figure it out.
“Tell the cabbage story,” she said.
“We had so much cabbage from Essex Farm,” said Shambo. “Jocelyn brought in her recipe from home. It calls for maple syrup. We don’t have a ton here, and need to use it for pancakes and French toast, so we substituted honey, a tiny drizzle with a bit of whipping butter on sauteed cabbage. And we kept putting it on the kids’ trays. They looked at us and were like, ‘No.’ And I’m like, ‘You’ll still get it on your tray, try it.’”
Lopez laughed. “I constantly tell my son, who is in eighth grade here, to go back and get the fruit. He always sighs and says: ‘Can you just be my lunch lady?’”
When the bell rang between classes at 10:52, they were ready for lunch service. Children piled into the cafeteria, pushed red plastic trays along the line, grabbed bowls of rhubarb crisp faster than Shambo could replace them, and plopped down at tables next to a mural of the High Peaks. Some picked up egg-salad or peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches ordered earlier in homeroom. Older classes hit the salad bar hard. When the final wave of students finished their meals shortly after noon, and scraped their trays into the compost bins, the three women cleaned up.
At the same time, outside in the late spring sunshine, Garden Coordinator Bunny Goodwin unlocked a shed containing kid-size tools to prepare for “Planting Week” sessions in the school plots behind the elementary classrooms. Scheduled during June when frost no longer threatens, this program is designed for students K through six to start crops that will appear on their lunch menus in the fall. In contrast to northern California, where the farm-to-school movement began, the Adirondacks’ abbreviated growing season is a challenge for regional farmers, let alone after-school garden clubs. Goodwin has always raised vegetables at home, and initiated the Keene Central compost program on Earth Day in 1995. The garden grew out of that concept, and now is so integrated into school life that it has a unique set of rules: a baseball accidentally hit into the beds is an automatic home run, allowing time to retrieve it carefully without disturbing the plantings. (If a ball lands on a bounce, it’s a double.) The enclosed garden is an orderly place of raised beds, apple trees, a bean trellis and a repurposed geodesic dome for rainy day activities. Hand-painted signs indicate where rhubarb, carrots, parsnips, garlic and lettuces are planted.
“My idea of a garden was to have it accessible to kids,” said Goodwin, arranging watering cans next to a bed bordered by woodchip paths. “They wander around here and eat everything. They pick on the herbs. They eat raw asparagus. They’re so curious about insects. You’d think kindergartners wouldn’t want to touch them, but they do, especially the worms, and they get so distracted by it. They’re so excited to be here at that age. Once they leave sixth grade, they can disappear into the middle and high school. I just never see them again.”
When Goodwin was ready, she knocked on the door to the kindergarten classroom, and students stepped out one by one. She had each choose a rake or shovel and till the dirt, mounding piles with their hands, before giving each child pumpkin seeds to plant. They covered up the seeds, then happily splashed water from cans designed for bigger hands. (As first graders, they’ll return to harvest the pumpkins and take one home in the fall.) Goodwin unpotted rosemary for several girls to add to the herb bed, already sprouting parsley and lemon balm. Chatter and laughter accompanied these tasks, as Goodwin and another volunteer guided them to put away the tools. The bell rang again, and the children returned to their classroom to wash their hands.
Brushing dirt off her hiking boots, Goodwin explained her spring and fall crop rotation, noting students get at least two formal visits to the garden a year.
“The younger kids plant the bigger things like garlic, and then the upper elementary are doing things like the carrots and beets. Because if they’re planting potatoes that class also should harvest them. If you don’t do that, then you’re not making the full connection again with [Holbrook’s] program in the cafeteria.”
Following discussions with teachers about curriculum, Goodwin introduced parsnips while students were studying breadbaskets of the ancient world, and the kitchen staff turned the roots into parsnip fries for lunch. She raised corn so the children could grind kernels with a stone, and cook corn cakes in a frying pan on an open fire during Forest Fridays.
“The garden has so many other uses,” said Goodwin. “I’ve seen kids come out here and read. One day, the career personnel were sitting quietly on the benches next to the butterfly bushes, and later they said, ‘Oh, sorry. We were having a little mindfulness training.’”
With only 18 beds, it’s not possible to feed the entire school, but everything grown in the garden has its purpose, from the sage used for stuffing at the school’s annual Thanksgiving celebration to the garlic that seasons sauce on pizza days.
“I have ultimate respect for the cafeteria,” said Goodwin. “In the beginning they didn’t want to take stuff because we could never produce enough for everybody, but now when we come in with an armload of asparagus, there are smiles on their faces. So they’re evolving, too.”
When classes ended at 3:00, Goodwin welcomed members of the Garden Club for their final visit before summer. They grabbed gloves from the shed and squatted to weed the beds. After 30 minutes, everyone gathered at picnic tables, and Goodwin served generous slices of pie baked with the last of the season’s rhubarb crop, along with scoops of vanilla ice cream. Seconds were allowed.