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Students take part in farm-to-table project

Crops planted by Wheelerville Central School District students at Hu-Hill Farms in Fort Plain are shown. (Photo submitted)

By JENNIFER FARNSWORTH

For The Leader-Herald

CAROGA –Fresh pasta sauce, homemade soups, and in-season vegetables may sound like items you would find at a cafe or bistro, but for Wheelerville Union Free School Cafeteria Damon Loucks, these are the options that he is putting out everyday to the students who pass through his lunch line. Thanks to a program passed in August by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Farm-to-School initiatives are thriving in many districts around the state and Wheelerville is no exception.

Wheelerville District Superintendent Rich Ruberti said Loucks has been an instrumental pioneer in implementing the program, from planting the seeds, to transporting to the far, to getting the produce onto the trays of district students.

“Damon has been ahead of the curve on this initiative as he had been working with a local farm since May,” said Rubertu.

The sign for Hu-Hill Farms in Fort Plain is shown. (Photo submitted)

Ruberti said this past March, students began placing vegetable seeds in pots that were grown in self-sustaining greenhouses. In July, the seedlings were transplanted to Hu-Hill Farms LLC in Fort Plain. He said various vegetables are now being utilized in the school cafeteria in addition to the district purchasing their organic, grass fed beef to be used in school lunches. The district has applied for a New York Farm-to-School grant along with the Capital Region BOCES to help support the program.

“This will be a tremendous opportunity for the district to offer high-quality locally sourced food to students at a reduced cost for the school and while utilizing our own greenhouses to start the process,” said Ruberti.

Loucks said for him, it all comes down to making the effort. He said offering fresh, organic produce is cost effective, beneficial to local farms, and a healthier choice for growing children. The other important factor, Loucks said, is the education component. He said not only do the students learn how to grow something, they are learning about the importance of eating local.

“Kids are learning to grow their own food. In March they were doing the seeding, and the watering in the greenhouses, and then the planting at Hu- Hill Farms. We are growing everything from tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, and squash,” said Loucks.

The school also hosted a barbecue for the parents to show off the produce grown by their children. Loucks prepared homemade sauces, side dishes, and his popular vegetable lasagna.

Seedlings ready to planted by Wheelerville Central School District students at Hu-Hill Farms in Fort Plain are shown. (Photo submitted)

“It gave our parents an opportunity to see what we are doing,” said Ruberti.

Ruberti said the district has applied for a grant that would reimburse the school 25 cents per meal, instead of the regular 5.9 cents per meal, for purchasing at least 30 percent of ingredients from a local farm.

“If every district in Fulton County would link up with a local farm to work with, the economic benefits would be so positive for both the farms, and the districts, all while providing high quality healthy ingredients,” said Ruberti.

When asked how the students at his kindergarten through eighth grade school react to choices of fruits and vegetables, Ruberti said sometimes it takes the younger ones a bit to try new things, but he said overall the reactions have been beyond favorable.

“The kids, especially the older ones, are proud to see what they have grown and they certainly appreciate what has Damon has done,” said Ruberti.

The Farm-to-School program helps kindergarten through grade 12 schools connect with local farmers, increase the use of locally grown food on school menus, improve student health, and educate young people about agriculture.

“The process has come full circle and it’s a win-win-win for all parties,” said Ruberti.

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