CommunityHealth June 28, 2016

School Lunches Go Sustainable

Local Food Alliance Partners with Valley Schools

Gone are the days of school lunches on shiny plastic lunch trays filled with indeterminate and unrecognizable mush.

Now, think local, sustainable vegetables, fruits and meats served on compostable dishes with real flatware and cloth napkins. This is the kind of scene that is becoming a familiar sight at a few Wood River Valley schools and is part of the sustainable lunch program that the Local Food Alliance helped to create.

The mission of the Local Food Alliance, based in Hailey, Idaho, is to create a vibrant local food system in the Wood River Valley. Its goal is to increase access to food grown and produced in and near the Valley. The Local Food Alliance provides a backbone of coordination, awareness and support among local organizations. Ali Long, the organization’s founder and executive director, said, “Our aim is to ‘connect the dots’ for greater efficiencies and to further existing efforts toward a healthy local food system.”

A logical endeavor for the Local Food Alliance was to partner with local schools and create a sustainable lunch program. “When Syringa Mountain School (a Waldorf-inspired charter school in Hailey) began, we learned that they had not contracted with a food corporation,” Long said. “So, we coordinated between Syringa and ourselves, and soon the farm-to-table lunch program was born!”

Long explained that the Local Food Alliance is also working with Community School, and that they are close to launching the “20/20 Local Lunch Option,” inspired by the class of 2020’s food unit. The group continues to facilitate the program’s improvement and expansion. “Our long-term interest is that this pilot will demonstrate the feasibility of such programs, and that the Blaine County School District will adopt something similar,” Long added.

Upper school science teacher and Community School’s sustainability coordinator Scott Runkel said the idea of providing healthy, locally sourced and sustainable lunch to the students has been “in the works” for some time. Runkel’s role as the sustainability coordinator is to ensure that Community School’s building initiatives, programs and everyday life are sustainable, and that the school is actively working to cultivate environmentally educated citizens.

Gone are the days of school lunches on shiny plastic lunch trays filled with indeterminate and unrecognizable mush.

“There’s so much power in eating healthy, nutrient-dense food,” offered Runkel.

Eighth-graders at Community School start their year with a food unit. The class of 2020 decided to develop a lunch program for their final project of the unit. Runkel tried to impress upon the class that, from an environmental perspective, how we eat determines the way land is used and is a huge part of our footprint. The kids had to include in their lunch program types of food, possible menus, logistics and prices, so that when the project was over, they could put it into practice. Working with the dorm chef, Head of School Ben Pettit and the Local Food Alliance, the class’s plan is to have the program together for the start of the 2016-2017 school year. The students are looking to the program in place at Syringa Mountain School for guidance.

“The lunch program will go a long way at eliminating waste,” Runkel said. “If we could get 30 to 50 lunches going twice a week at the start, that would be brilliant.”

“One of the core values of Syringa Mountain School is sustainability,” said Mende Coblentz, education director at Syringa. “We currently have a 2,500-square-foot garden area in which our students enjoy project-based learning that focuses on health, nutrition, science and sustainability. We have an edible school garden, various citizen science projects and a composting program.”

The program at Syringa is a joint partnership with the Local Food Alliance, the Wood River Sustainability Center, and the school’s student garden program. “We are a school lunch pilot program for these two organizations,” Coblentz said. “They hope to be able to offer this program to all schools in Blaine County. We’re helping them work out the logistics of offering nutritious food to a moderately sized student body before launching a larger program.”

The Local Food Alliance helps the school with networking, educational materials and fundraising efforts. “It’s a team effort, and we feel really fortunate to be working with such visionaries in our community,” Coblentz added.

The Sustainability Center writes the menus for Syringa’s school lunches, publishes menus monthly and tracks the families that participate in the program. Sample meals from the menu are impressive and are nothing like school lunches—public or private—of yesteryear.  One of the most popular items on the menu is the taco salad, which includes grass-fed beef, roasted tomato salsa, and rice and beans with jalapeños, garlic, tomato and cilantro. The fourth- and fifth-graders at Syringa have high praise for their school lunches, which is a seemingly uncommon sentiment among the general elementary school population. In an admittedly unscientific survey, a student named Skyler told me, “I love all the food.” Gavin thought that his school lunches are “healthy and natural.” And tellingly, Camas summed up the sustainable lunch program’s offerings: “It’s all really delicious.”

This article appears in the Summer 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.