Tahlequah Daily Press

February 25, 2013

Chefs discuss benefits of locally-sourced foods

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — There is a fresh food movement growing to provide lunches appealing in both look and taste to school students.

The thinking behind it is kids are not eating lunch, which is worse than eating a meal that offers poor nutrition.

While it appears to be a new idea, people over age 50 may remember when that was normal, to have school lunches that were, for the most part, homemade by the cooks.

Saturday the Cherokee County Food Policy Council was host to the second annual Food Festival and Local Foods Conference, a rancher, farmer and market gardener workshop held at the Tahlequah Community Building.

A dozen vendors around the room sold plants and other locally-grown produce and products, and shared information.

The event focused on the market producer and larger farmers, but also offered information for any serious gardener. The morning session featured a panel of regional chefs discussing their needs and desires for sourcing local meats, cheeses, grains and produce to purchase for the 2013 season.

Chef Guy Romo, who has a food truck in Oklahoma City, and Chef Eli Huff, from Tulsa Union Schools, encouraged and educated those in attendance.

“The schools don’t all see the value [in improving their menus], but the kids really like it,” Huff said. “If the food doesn’t get used, they have to throw it away. We make soup and stock from it instead. We take the chef’s process and apply it to a school. And we make the food look and taste appealing.”

Romo said Huff takes vegetables most kids would scoff at eating and makes them enjoyable.

“Kid’s eat with their eyes,” Huff said.

“An apple orchard is being planted to provide apples for the school. Wealso buy herbs, about 10 to 15 pounds of basil, we make pesto with and freeze.”

They use chicken scraps to make stock for soups. Everything gets used.

“We’re always asking, how do we get a product and how do we use it,” Huff said. “And we’re trying to increase more fresh produce for next year.”

The farmers are already growing wheat, which Huff will use for to make hamburger buns.

“We taste and test the new products, to see what will work for us, what is available,” Huff said.

Coleen Thornton asked what the producers and school does when there is crop failure.

“Rewrite the menu,” Huff said. “We can’t use 100 percent of local products, the school district has to serve salad, so we also rely on an a alternate source. The schools lose money per child if we don’t provide the required foods.”

Farmers also have to be covered by insurance.

“Anything you grow and produce has to be covered under insurance, anything we buy from you,” Huff said.

Huff said two more Tulsa area schools are interested in improving their menus and he’s talking to Oklahoma City Schools, also.

Another area to consider is retraining the school cooks.

“How do you train 250 people to use these fresh products?” asked Romo.

The school was steaming frozen broccoli for 45 minutes starting about 8:30 in the morning and by lunch time it was limp and mushy, Huff said.

“The point is,” Romo said, “if it’s working at Tulsa Union, it’ll make it’s way here to Tahlequah. It’s a great city, but the food here is not nutritional. Thank the Lord for Reasor’s for providing good produce. The parents have to drive the school board to change the menu.”

The USDA is driving that change under proper procedures, Romo said.

Available food is changing, as farmers and gardeners adjust to the changing weather patterns Farmers are growing during the school time, using shade cloths when planting crops like watermelon and cantelope in July.

“I have spinach, arugula and kale growing now,” ssaid audience member Pam Moore.

Romo said his menu changes daily, based on what’s fresh and available.

“I have that luxury,” said Romo. “I don’t have to buy massive amounts, just what’s available. We have a lot of respect for what you do; without farmers, we’d be out of jobs. We want to see you grow and succeed. There’s nothing like biting into a tomato grown on a farm nearby.”

Local resident Wayne Gourley said he enjoys these events because he learns something new.

“It’s good to know they’re making food more appealing for kids in school,” Gourley said.

Sonja Keck said she and Gourley sold tomatos to The Branch last year.

“Today I’ve learned that the the things we grow have value and we shouldn’t undervalue them,” Keck said. “We put a lot of time into them. The secret is to have a green thumb and brown knees,” Keck said.

Helen Hendrix, owner of Sunshine Nursery, has been gardening 30 years.

“It gets in your blood,” Hendrix said. “I’ve learned a great deal today, These events inform people how to do a garden then the come to me for plants. It’s good to be a gardener.”

Consumer and a lifelong organic gardener Ellen Wakamatsu said she was looking into other specialty food crops, besides saffron, to grow in the hot, dry summer season.


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