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Schools get funds to serve local-food lunches

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Last week, school districts desiring to expand local food initiatives were given a boost from a state grant.

Sidney Central School District’s farm-to-school program was among 12 statewide to receive funding through a $1 million award announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday.

The $58,783 allocated to Sidney will aid in appointing a Farm-to-School coordinator and assistant to procure local farm products for ten school districts in the DCMO-BOCES region for NY Thursday, an initiative that every Thursday meal will be made entirely from locally grown foods.

Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and the Rural Health Network of South Central New York will assist in this, according to Sidney Superintendent Bill Christensen.

Josh Gray, a teacher and garden coordinator for Sidney Elementary, said he wrote the grant with Kim Corcoran, the food service coordinator for Sidney and nine other districts through DCMO-BOCES.

Afton, Bainbridge, Walton, Downsville, Unatego, Unadilla Valley, Sherburne-Earlville, Greene and Oneonta City districts’ food service workers will receive staff training and equipment to handle the logistical elements of preparing, serving and preserving fresh food.

“Many of our students are receiving two-thirds of their caloric intake at school, and we have to decide if we want to be doing something good, health-wise and nutrition-wise for our students,” Gray said. “It’s such an important part to imprint those nutritional beginnings.”

Sidney began growing produce for the cafeteria six years ago, Gray said. It has grown every year with the help of CCE-Delaware, Bassett’s Creating Healthy Schools and Communities and The Hill and Valley Garden Club of Sidney. In the cafeteria, students tend to an aquaponics system that grows lettuce and spinach through the winter. Alongside the increase in fruits and vegetables, the school has a taste-testing program in the elementary school to interest children in trying new foods so the model can be effective.

“School is an economic engine in the community; federal and state money are coming in, and where is it going out?” Gray asked. “We’d rather see it go into a closed economy, back into the community, as much as possible.”

“The economic boon is huge for farmers,” said Christian DiRado-Owens, the program coordinator for Rural Health Network of South Central New York. In the programs he has worked on in Broome and Tioga counties, he estimated the schools spend $60,000-$80,000 each school year through their NY Thursday program alone. That money goes directly back into the community.

The system is not without its challenges, DiRado-Owens said, citing sustainable transportation and cost-effectiveness as obstacles. He said, however, that these can be overcome, as many programs across the country have shown. 

“It supports local farmers, provides healthy foods and students are generally engaged and interested in it,” DiRado-Owens said.

For Sidney, the grant is part of a larger push toward local investment. 

“We’re committed to improving what we serve in our lunchrooms,” Christensen said. “We’re in a great area to continue to develop it and hopefully lead for other districts across the state.”

Whitney Bashaw, staff writer, can be reached at (607) 441-7218 or wbashaw@thedailystar.com

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