ANNAPOLIS – The cafeteria tables in Takoma Park Middle School were lined with both adults and students enjoying locally grown produce during Tuesday’s kick-off event for Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week.
Students, as well as farmers and local and state officials, participated in educational activities focused on Maryland agriculture.
Part of the Jane Lawton Farm-to-School Program, which was created in May, Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week is designed to bring farms and schools together to teach students where their food comes from, how it is produced and why healthy eating is important.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture reported that at least 16 Maryland school systems are hosting events this week for the school lunch program, including counties from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore.
The Takoma Park event opened with speeches by the school’s principal, Renay Johnson, and prominent guests. Agricultural exhibits included an informational table from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension and an interactive display from the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation.
“We talked to the farmer who came,” said Lisha Ruan, 13, an eighth-grader at Takoma Park. Ruan and other members of the school’s orchestra were among the students who attended the event.
Afterward, students and guests entered the school’s cafeteria for a lunch of pizza and French fries that also included green beans from Chestertown and cucumbers from Clinton.
“It was very exciting for the kids to find out where the food came from,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, who sponsored the bill that implemented the Farm-to-School Program. Raskin was one of the speakers Tuesday.
“We’ve got 12,000 farms in Maryland and we have 1,200 schools. So we have 100 farms for every school,” said Raskin. “Our commitment is to find a way to use our kids in public schools as the right market for our farm food.”
The Farm-to-School Program was designed to serve multiple purposes.
“This is going to be not only a great thing for students to have this healthier, local food in their lunches and the educational components that can go along with it, but also open up and expand markets locally for farmers,” said Sue duPont, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “We’re hoping it grows to a point when there’s things on the menu every day, all year, and that there’s more and more in each meal all the time.”
Some Maryland school systems already incorporate locally grown produce into their menus.
“We work with Lancaster Foods, and when local produce is available, that’s where they should be buying from – and they do,” said Kathy Lazor, director of the Division of Food & Nutrition Services for Montgomery County Public Schools.
In Maryland, the growing season for many produce items does not coincide with the school year.
“We’re coming to the end of the season,” said Gina Schillinger, who owns Papa John’s Farm, in Severn, with her husband Jim Schillinger. The produce that the Schillingers will provide to schools this week includes squash, eggplants, corn, cucumbers, and green and red peppers.
Although the availability of some produce is at times low, supporters believe it will be successful.
“We’re so excited about it, but it is the first year and there’s a lot going on and the potential is huge,” said duPont.