During a recent lunch period at Southampton Intermediate School, students gave thumbs-up signals while their mouths were full of “red velvet” muffins—made from beets. Some of them sported stickers on their foreheads given to them that read: “I ate local today.”Beets were this month’s featured product in school cafeterias through the East End Farm to School Project, a partnership that began in 2016 between the Southampton, Tuckahoe and Bridgehampton school districts to acquire local produce and find creative and healthy ways to incorporate them into their meal programs. If not enough of a single product can be obtained from a local farm, administrators look for the closest option within the state.
Marta Blanco and Melissa Mapes, two administrators involved in the Farm to School Project, circled the Southampton Intermediate School cafeteria on Wednesday, February 13, carrying a tray of the whole-grain beet muffins and a roll of stickers to hand out to those who tried them. Most students were eager to take one, especially if they saw their friends do the same.
“I think it’s not only being mindful of how local produce is grown nearby … but also the kids are learning that, in their lives, they need to support agriculture. And, a lot of times, also, they’re learning that not everything comes packaged,” said Ms. Blanco, a bilingual nutritionist for Cornell Cooperative Extension. She works throughout the East End to provide nutritional education in schools and community organizations.
On January 31, the Southampton School District and the East End Farm to School Project received a Farm to School Partnership Award from the New York School Nutrition Association for continuing the collaboration with local farms and creating better distribution channels. Having this cooperative with three districts allows them to order more in bulk and get better prices, Ms. Kiembock said. The district was recognized with a similar award 11 years ago.
That same week, the Southampton elementary and high school students had the chance to try the muffins during their lunch periods as well. If the food item proved popular during the taste test, school kitchen staff will then add it to the menu for the rest of the month. This gives the students more of a say in what meals are served.
Previous recipes the Southampton district tried out, like kale apple salad and butternut squash macaroni-and-cheese, have made it onto the menu in the past, the district’s food service director, Regan Kiembock, said.
They chose to make muffins out of the beets because it can be incorporated easily into the menu. “We serve muffins homemade once a week. The whole-grain muffins that we make here. So we’re simply puréeing the beets and adding them to the muffins,” Ms. Kiembock said.
Every month features what they call a “harvest of the month.” January was carrots, which they acquired from Balsam Farms in Amagansett, and December was kale from The Green Thumb Organic Farm in Water Mill. They turned the kale into a pesto using garlic from Open Minded Organics in Bridgehampton.
This month’s beets were grown in the Hudson Valley area because they were not available closer.
The three districts get to choose their own preparations of the given ingredient. Last month, Southampton decided to make gingered carrots, but the spiciness of the ginger did not fare well with the younger children. So Tuckahoe went with roasted carrots, and Bridgehampton made baked Parmesan carrot fries—a big hit with the kids there, said Ms. Mapes, the Farm to School coordinator.
“This has been a really good one, too,” Ms. Mapes said of the beet muffins. “The kids are responding really well.”
February and March are the most challenging months to get produce, due to seasonality, Ms. Mapes explained, so their options were limited for this taste test. Produce that can be stored through the winter, like root vegetables, are the most accessible during those months. Warmer seasons allow students to grow vegetables in the intermediate school garden and use those in their meals.
As the school year approaches its final months, the future of the East End Farm to School Project becomes uncertain. The state grant that was awarded to begin the program in 2016 will run out of funds by the end of the school year.
Ms. Kiembock said she and her team are currently brainstorming ways to obtain additional funding to continue the program. Applying for additional grants is one option they are considering.