Concord Monitor staff
Sunday, September 22, 2013
(Published in print: Sunday, September 22, 2013)

CONCORD MONITOR: In Concord's school cafeterias, gone are the days of unappealing vegetable mush and suspicious-looking hamburger meat that comes from who knows where. This year, school lunch is going local.

In every cafeteria across the district, students will eat meat from Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, tacos and salsa from Mitchell's Fresh in Bow, and fresh fruits and veggies from Beans and Greens in Gilford, Meadow Ledge Farm in Loudon and Autumn View Farm in Pittsfield.

The reason for the change is simple: "The closer we get to the farm, the fresher the food is, the better it's going to taste when you serve it," said John Lash, the district's new food service director and the brain behind the new program.

Lash started working for the district July 1, and he worked all summer on an overhaul to the district's school lunch program. He previously worked in Gilford for two years, where he ran a similar program on a much smaller scale. His goal is to give students healthier and more appealing options in hopes that will grow participation in the school lunch program. And by working with local farmers, the district is also keeping money in the local economy.

Beyond bringing in more local food, other changes this year include no more flavored milk (a change which has irked some high school students) and the optional addition of an 8-ounce bottle of water with every meal. Each cafeteria also has new recycling containers so the plastic bottles don't create waste.

Communicating with parents, especially parents of elementary school students, is a key to increasing participation. Lash sent a letter to all parents about the changes at the start of the school year, and he said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The best responses came from parents who said they never had their children buy lunch in the past but planned to start this year. Participation is up so far this year in all of the elementary schools and Rundlett Middle School, Lash said. At the high school, where it is the hardest to change kids' eating habits, school lunch sales remain the same as last year.

"This is a challenge for him to come and do that work in a large district, but we're very enthusiastic about how it's gotten off the ground," Superintendent Chris Rath said.

As of last year, the district bought minimal local food. In previous years, most of the food came from the Federal Commodities Program, which provides free food to school districts. A disadvantage of that program is that districts have no idea where the food is actually coming from or its level of quality, Lash said. He hopes that eventually the district won't have to accept any food from the commodities program.

"We can get a lot of it, but it's not food that I'm comfortable serving. The hamburgers taste awful, who knows where it's from," he said, adding "the difference between the canned green beans and the fresh ones is so vast that I don't want to take any commodity food."

Now, all of the meat, from hamburgers, meatballs and tacos, comes from Miles Smith Farm. (Lash estimates the district will buy at least 8,000 pounds of meat from them this year.) The high school cafeteria is also now serving "Bag O' Taco," which includes meat, crushed chips, salsa, lettuce and sour cream mixed together in a bag and eaten with a fork. All of the ingredients aside from the meat come from Mitchell's Fresh in Bow, and the new menu item is one of the most popular so far this year. Beans and Greens in Gilford is taking corn off the cob that the schools can freeze and use year-round. Last week, Meadow Ledge Farm picked peaches that were served to students the next day.

Fran Wyatt, head cook at Concord High School, said there's a major difference in food quality between this year and last.

"I think it's good: the kids are liking it," she said. "You can see the difference in the meat."

Beyond serving healthier food, dealing with area farms puts money back into the local economy, Lash said. He once heard a lecture by an economist who said that every dollar spent on local food can drive six to eight dollars back into the economy.

"If we spend $200,000 on local food this year, and that's going to get repeated even five times, that's really like us infusing a million dollars back into our local economy," Lash said.

To keep the prices from rising in cafeterias, Lash gives local farms an estimate for what he can afford and only works with those that can meet his price. Carole Soule, owner of Miles Smith Farm, said she and her husband, Bruce Dawson, have worked hard to deliver a price that works for the schools. Lash began working with them when he served as food service director in Gilford's schools. They're willing to work with Lash to find acceptable prices because they believe in the program he's created.

"We want kids to eat healthy food, it's really part of our core mission," Soule said.

Although Lash wants to put as much local food as possible on the cafeteria trays, he can't buy everything local. Oranges and bananas, for example, don't grow well in New Hampshire. Chicken will also be hard to buy locally because there are few farms that can provide the volume of meat he would need, he said. But he plans to continue experimenting and finding creative ways to improve food quality.

He even hopes the model he's developing at Concord High will teach other schools how to bring local food into their cafeterias, too.

"I want this to be replicable," he said. "I want other school districts to say 'Wow, if you guys are doing this on such a huge scale, then we should be able to do this on a smaller scale."

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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