Safety from Seed to Service in Maine and Texas

In the February issue of School Nutrition, writer Penny McLaren visits with directors in Vermont, Arizona, California and Colorado to discuss how they keep school gardens safe. Now, check in with directors in Maine and Texas for more tips.

Maine

Jeanne Reilly, SNS, DTR, is director of Food Service for the Windham-Raymond School District RSU #14, Maine. All seven of the district’s schools have gardens. “Some are more successful than others,” she says, but those that are most successful have hoop houses that extend the growing season. Smaller gardens operate more as a learning lab for students and provide for in-class taste-testing.

If there is enough produce to be useful to foodservice, it is used on the salad bars. (One school harvested in one day 40 pounds of carrots! Those were processed in the kitchen and used for soup.)  Reilly notes that, for these schools, she is developing a HACCP plan for the gardens.

Here are food safety measures at Windham-Raymond schools:

The Plot: The gardens are sited to be away from trash collection areas or other possible sources of contamination. They use purchased soil and raised beds. Water comes direct from school water sources. Many of the gardens are in protected areas of the school property that keeps wildlife at bay. The high school garden is in an enclosed courtyard in the middle of the school, so it is safe from intrusions of deer or any other animals while still being open above to the outside elements, rain and sun. Schools do a small amount of composting, but only use fruit and vegetable waste from the garden and from the prep of other vegetable and fruit produce, and not any plate waste. 

The Gardeners: Students do the harvesting; they must wash their hands before they go out in the garden. 

The Harvest: Produce is collected in stainless steel colanders. Once harvested, the produce is brought to the school kitchens for cleaning and processing. The colanders are cleaned and stored in the kitchens. The biggest growing season is while school is not in session, so volunteers provide support during school vacations. These are mostly foodservice workers who are employed during the summer doing maintenance work, and so they can stop by to water on their regular route of work. “We rely heavily on the school gardens network and the USDA,” says Reilly. “We collaborate a lot with other groups and I think that is key.”

Smithville (Texas)Independent School District

Candy Biehle is Child Nutrition director for the Smithville(Texas) Independent School District. In a small district of 1,900 students, her department helps maintain four gardens. All the food—100%!—from the gardens is used in the foodservice program, and none is wasted. All the herbs—basil, oregano, cilantro, rosemary, dill—are supplied to foodservice through the school gardens. The gardens are all funded by the food service program. 

The Plot: Soil is purchased from a commercial supplier. Plants are put in a composter and finished compost is applied when needed. Garden tools are only used by adults. 

Water is sourced from the city supply to all the gardens, “Or we depend on rain,” says Biehle. Her plan is to apply for a grant to acquire two compartment sinks to install outside for washing the produce from the gardens. They also have garden scales, which were purchased with grant money.

Most of the gardens are located in secluded areas of the grounds, and so they are protected from contamination. Sometimes, the crops are subjected to insect invasions, which can cause a loss of a crop. 

The Crops . The crops, which have included lettuce, kale, broccoli, peppers, snow peas, radishes, potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower, are used in foodservice recipes, as well as fresh on the salad bar. Everything is organically grown, so no chemicals are used. Special collection containers are used for the harvest, which are then sanitized by the kitchen staff and sent back to the gardens for the next harvest day.

The Gardeners. The elementary schools have a very successful Junior Harvester program which is a privilege for students to be part of, and many students apply and then anxiously wait to be accepted.  There are two programs conducted in a school year, one in the fall and another in the spring, and students must apply and be accepted to take part.  Once accepted, they go through a rigorous training program and then are allowed to work a certain number of hours per week in the garden.  The students get HACCP training and are instructed on the handling requirements for the produce.

The high school garden is run by special needs students, a new garden begun this school year.  Many of the special needs students had grown up working in their elementary school gardens but had no similar program once they got to high school, so the new high school garden meets that need.  Students are well aware of the food safety measures that must be followed after years of working in the school gardens before high school.

All the gardens have sinks for washing produce. Students wash their hands at the garden sinks. After harvest, they wash produce at the garden sinks and weigh it. Once they deliver the produce to the kitchens, the produce is again washed in three-compartment sinks. 

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