BY PAUL LEIGHTON STAFF WRITER
The Salem News
---- — BEVERLY — A few times each year, Pat Kriksceonaitis puts on his farmer’s hat, grabs a big basket of fruit and walks into a cafeteria full of cheering students.
“They give you a positive reaction,” he said.
The visits by Kriksceonaitis, the farm manager at Brooksby Farm in Peabody, are part of a growing connection between local farms and school districts.
Five years ago, only eight school districts had partnerships with local farms, according to the Massachusetts Farm to School Project. That number is now up to 226.
One of the newest arrangements involves Moraine Farm in Beverly, which this year started selling fresh vegetables to the Salem and Beverly public schools. The staff at Moraine Farm harvests vegetables on Monday morning and delivers them to the schools that day.
“It’s absolutely terrific,” said Nancy Antolini, Beverly’s director of food services. “It’s a fresher taste, and there’s more of a selection. The students see how things are grown right here locally. The young kids are very impressed by it.”
Farmers and school food service directors say the partnerships are driven in part by new nutritional guidelines by the federal government that require schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; set calorie limits; and establish targets for reducing sodium in meals.
At the state level, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a school nutrition bill last year that requires schools to offer fresh fruits and vegetables at any location where food is sold. It also allows local school districts to buy fruits and vegetables from Massachusetts farms without going through the normal bidding process.
Moraine Farm, which established a 29-acre community-supported agriculture program last year under the Trustees of Reservations, has been selling about $200 worth of produce each week to both Salem and Beverly.
Antolini brought the cooks from the Beverly schools to the farm before the start of the school year to see the operation and talk about how to cook and store the vegetables, said Moraine Farm manager Gretta Anderson.
Moraine Farm delivers typical vegetables like lettuce, spinach and carrots, but Anderson has also provided recipes that include escarole and chicory.
“When I deliver the food, the cooks are really excited about trying new things,” Anderson said.
Moraine Farm established its relationship with the local schools with help from the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, which was created in 2004 with funding from the state Department of Agriculture. Simca Horwitz, the organization’s farm-to-cafeteria coordinator, introduced Anderson and Salem Food Services Director Deborah Jeffers and brought Jeffers out to the farm last year.
Horwitz said it is more challenging to create school/farm partnerships in eastern Massachusetts because the farms are generally smaller and more accustomed to retail sales than selling wholesale to large organizations.
To make sure students are aware that their food is being locally grown, the Farm to School Project arranges visits from local farmers and provides promotional materials like posters and baseball-like cards of farmers that include their ‘statistics’ on the back.
“Especially at the elementary level, the kids start to know the farmers,” Horwitz said. “They get the sense that, ‘That’s our farmer!’ We’re trying to cultivate that sense of a real direct connection.”
Brooksby Farm has been selling produce to its hometown Peabody schools for years, but now also has arrangements with Marblehead, Hamilton-Wenham, Manchester Essex, Tewksbury and Triton. Tewksbury, as an example, buys 20 bushels of apples per week, about 2,800 apples.
Kriksceonaitis said selling to schools is not a big moneymaker for the farm, “but if we can get kids eating healthier, the farms are better off in the long run.”
“If we can get them used to the flavor of fresh fruit,” he said, “chances are they’re going to be eating it when they’re older instead of a Twinkie.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.