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Md. school districts pushing local produce

FREDERICK — It was like a match made in heaven.

Catoctin Mountain Orchard happened to have a fantastic plum crop this year, co-owner Robert Black said.

Frederick County Public Schools food services workers wanted to put more locally grown fruits and vegetables in school lunches.

A handshake or two later, and local public school students are enjoying plums and apples from Catoctin and watermelons, tomatoes and peaches from Baugher’s Farm in Carroll County.

While efforts are being made to have fresh produce available throughout the school year, all schools are gearing up for Maryland Homegrown Lunch Week, which kicks off Monday.

All 24 public school districts are participating in the third annual initiative, according to a news release from the state Department of Agriculture.

“Providing students with local food for lunches and snacks as well as associated lessons helps to educate them about where their food comes from, how it is produced and the benefits of a healthy diet,” state Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance said in the release.

Fresh foods offer more nutrients than processed foods, according to JoAnn Morris, food service specialist for the Frederick County school system. “We think this arrangement is a win-win for the children and schools and the farmers.”

Across Frederick County, between 15,000 and 16,000 lunches are prepared each day, Morris said. The addition of fresh fruits encourages healthy choices and better eating and snacking habits for children.

Black, who admitted to having a bias for locally grown foods, said students were getting Red Delicious apples from Washington state.

“They’d take a bite or two and then throw the apple away,” he said. “They’re junk — they’re not worth eating.”

Black is supplying Gala apples, which he said a child would want to finish.

“Apples are perfect — you get to eat the wrapper,” Black said. “They are nature’s toothbrush, they’re a great, healthy snack, and buying the apples locally for the school system supports the local economy.”

Black said he supplies “125s” to the school system — a small apple with 125 to a bushel — which are just enough for a child to eat. There’s less waste, and less cost than buying bigger apples that are too much for the children to eat, he said.

Catoctin Orchard has been selling produce to the school system for about three years, he said. Apples are always a hit, and the addition of the plums this year was great for both parties.

“We really had a fantastic plum crop this year, and I was getting ready to wholesale some of them to other farmers and markets when the school system expressed an interest in different fruits,” he said. “So it worked out well for everyone.”

While Frederick County farmers produce all sorts of food, including beef and other stock, Morris said that, because of federal and state food guidelines and laws, there aren’t any plans to incorporate local meats into school lunches.

Meat aside, providing locally grown food provides an opportunity to teach children about the agricultural industry, state Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick said in the news release.

And the focus on healthy foods helps make the connection between nutrition and learning, she said.