As farm-to-school food initiatives grow in the state, schools are coordinating with agricultural institutions to bridge the gap between school cafeterias and fresh produce.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County received funds from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to develop workshops in food preparation.

Between the two August workshops, 110 school cafeteria workers from 37 districts will be trained.

The workshops, taught by chefs Jim Birmingham and Tim Hardiman, covered knife skills, cooking methods and strategies for preparing, serving and storing fresh produce.

CCE Oneida Program Coordinator Ashleigh DeCarr explained that many cafeterias rely on a heat-and-serve style. School nutrition programs often operate on shoestring budgets, she said, which affects purchasing and labor, lending themselves to preparing more processed foods.

“The set of skills to prepare menus that are heat-and-serve are very different than the skills needed for fresh produce,” DeCarr said.

These workshops prepared cafeteria staff for the rising presence of fresh, whole foods, combining demonstrations and instruction with a hands-on component. Over a couple of days, food service workers learned to prepare USDA certified recipes designed for school kitchens such as zucchini Parmesan and ginger cabbage salad.

“This was designed specifically to address the evolving needs as we see the presence of local food in schools continue to increase,”  DeCarr said. “School food is embedded in a larger food system and is evolving along with that food system."

"This trend toward scratch cooking and whole foods is reflective of a societal shift in terms of local food movements.”

According to data from a 2015 United States Department of Agriculture Farm to School Census, 43 percent of school districts in New York participate in the farm-to-school program and the state continues to boost funding for programs, securing fresh food for nutrition and developing a new market for state farmers.

“New York state, especially this region, has a diverse range of products to offer schools and I think the agricultural roots in this area really lend itself to an effort like this,” DeCarr said.

Districts that attended the workshop included Edmeston, Laurens, Morris, Cherry Valley-Springfield, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Schoharie and Gilbertsville-Mount Upton.

The first workshop took place Aug. 6 at the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill, with more than 40 participants from 13 school districts.

A second workshop will be held on the Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES from Aug. 21 to 24, with 70 attendees from 24 districts.

DeCarr said she expects more workshops relating to the farm-to-school shift will pop up to explore other areas of infrastructure including management and integrated nutrition and agriculture education.

Whitney Bashaw, staff writer, can be reached at (607) 441-7218 or . Follow her on Twitter @DS_WhitneyB .

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