BOISE, Idaho — Boise School District Food Service supervisor Peggy Bodnar has a $400,000 produce budget and a desire to help students eat more local foods.
John Davis, a retired agriculture teacher who manages six vineyards of table grapes from Fruitland to Marsing, would prefer to cut shipping costs by selling as many grapes locally as he can. A federally backed program managed by the Idaho Department of Education and the Idaho Department of Agriculture's Idaho Preferred Program has brought the two together — along with other farmers and schools — to improve both nutrition and education.
And along the way, it's helping the local economy.
"The Farm to School program just fits the table-grape industry hand to glove," said Davis, of Caldwell.
School cooks can easily provide the portions they want for different aged students, Davis said. And the new, growing Idaho industry can deliver seedless red grapes straight to local schools or to distributors for larger districts like Boise.
Producers, food-service operators, teachers and distributors came together this week for the first-ever conference of the Farm to School program. They traded recipes, talked about how to set up school gardens, made new business contacts and were introduced to new Idaho foods available to schools at the two-day conference at the Riverside Hotel.
The Boise district has been involved since the program started two years ago. It committed to using local foods every day for the first few weeks of the program and one a week for a year.
It wasn't hard.
When officials talked to produce distributors Grasmick and Food Service of America, the district found it already was getting local fruits and vegetables. That didn't even count the $100,000 a month in dairy products it serves.
"What we found out is we were serving multiple local items already," Bodnar said.
But the program made Boise schools increase the selection, adding the table grapes that are just now beginning to take off as a crop in the Treasure Valley. Other local fruits include watermelons, plums, apples and pluots, which are plum-apricot hybrids.
"We've doubled the variety of fruit we made available to kids," Bodnar said.
Idaho Preferred is a state program aimed at promoting Idaho foods. It started a decade ago, just as the local food movement was taking off.
The Food to School program also aims to help tie kids into the source of their foods, said Leah Clark, the manager of Idaho Preferred. It has helped both farmers and food businesses target their products to local schools.
Clear Springs Foods of Buhl, for instance, makes Trout Treasures, a fish-shaped breaded fish stick made from rainbow trout. The company has reformulated its breading to use whole wheat to meet school standards, Clark said.
The local food movement no longer is just a niche. Consumers are demanding local foods, and polls show it's not just about taste, Clark said.
"Seventy percent said they want to buy local to help the economy," she said.
The Farm to School program is helping build the market, Bodnar said.
"It's amazing to watch kids know what local means," she said. "They can tell it tastes better because it's not shipped across four states."
Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com