Thursday, July 5, 2007

Food For Thought Raises Awareness

Students at Mira Monte Elementary School go through the Thursday salad bar, which is sponsored by the Food for Thought program. Several hundred students at three local schools eat at the salad bars.

By Daryl Kelley

The fund-raising fields were fallow for Ojai’s Food for Thought through the winter and spring, but now this nonprofit program to feed and educate local students is planting the seeds to raise a cash crop for next school year.
Last weekend, Farmer John Peterson, a national icon of community farming, showed up in his floppy farm hat and pink boa to promote Ojai’s efforts to serve students fresh, local fruits and vegetables, while teaching them good nutrition and how agriculture is an integral part of this community.
Founded in 2002 in partnership with the Ojai Unified School District, the program now reaches from kindergarten through junior high school, serving a salad bar to hundreds of students on Thursdays and sponsoring field trips to farms and wormy gardens on campus.
“Any community that weaves farming into itself is close to my heart,” said Peterson, whose documentary, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” filled the Ojai Playhouse on Sunday. “The fact that agriculture plays such a role in this community is a beautiful thing. And one of my most joyous experiences was coming to Ojai.”
Farmer John’s visit from northern Illinois to six local farms and his presentations to movie-goers on Saturday and Sunday were the beginning of a two-month effort to replenish Food for Thought, itself a locally grown effort of volunteers — parents, educators and growers.
The campaign will culminate Aug. 25 with the Locally Grown 2 concert at Libbey Bowl, which will feature local, but nationally known, singer-songwriters Perla Batalla and Brett Dennen. Also appearing will be the three winners of Battle of the Bands concerts at the Matilija Junior High School Auditorium on Aug. 4 and 5.
The first Locally Grown concert in 2005 was headlined by surfer musician megastar Jack Johnson, who donated his time and stays in close touch with the Ojai group. The event grossed $90,000 and netted $70,000, officials said.
And it has provided the no-strings-attached funds that have underwritten the program’s administration, said organization President and grower Jim Churchill, who founded the group with ecologist Marty Fujita and grower and school board member Steve Fields.
“The Locally Grown concert is our primary source of fundraising,” Churchill said. “These unrestricted funds are very important. They pay for our small staff, our overhead.”
Foundations regularly donate to Food for Thought, but they want their contributions to go straight into a specific program, said Fujita, the group’s vice president and main organizer of its fund-raising events.
“We get grants, but most foundations don’t like to pay for staff or overhead,” she said.
The group has a budget of about $60,000 a year and a part-time staff of three: program coordinator Lori Hamor and garden coordinator David White, along with garden assistants and about 40 volunteers.
Specialists may also be hired as consultants on specific projects, such as the $40,000 donation received last week from an international foundation to study how the school district can recycle its solid and green waste.
While Food for Thought’s salad bar gets the most public attention, the program also includes four other educational components:
• Kindergarteners and first-graders do a garden-based learning project, and fifth-graders supplement the U.S. history class by planting a colonial-era garden to learn how pioneer families depended on home gardens for food and medicine.
• Second-graders learn how to reduce trash through recycling lunchtime waste, and using green waste from the salad bar to maintain worm bins to produce topsoil for their gardens.
• Third-graders are taught three nutrition lessons throughout the school year that focus on different food groups, while sixth-graders receive lessons on making healthy choices within those groups.
• Fourth-graders take field trips to local farms to learn directly about how food is produced, sampling fruit and vegetables while learning about the history of local agriculture.
Officials say several hundred youngsters eat at salad bars on Thursdays at the three local public elementary schools with kitchens — Topa Topa, Mira Monte and Meiners Oaks.
Junior high students were a harder sell: only a handful were interested in the salad bar at Matilija at first. Then, this year, the program took off with extra effort from both the school district and Food for Thought volunteers.
For one, Churchill volunteered at Matilija each Thursday, and school district nutrition services director Suzane Lugotoff was there too.
“Suzanne was there getting students into line,” said Tim Baird. “I think sometimes the impression is that nutrition services is just concerned with the (financial) bottom line. But Suzane is very concerned about quality too.”
Baird was addressing the push-and-pull that’s part of the salad bar program: Food for Thought continually lobbies for the highest quality local fruits and vegetables, while the school district also must function under severe cost constraints and sometimes uses cheaper commodity products. The food service budget ran a deficit of more than $100,000 last year and that is projected to increase this year.
“We don’t think that the food offered to the children is great stuff,” Churchill said. “We think that all American diets, including the school lunch programs, are not optimal. Our goal is to make it better and to work with Suzanne and her staff to do that,” he said.
And school nutrition is certainly better than it was a few years ago, he said.
Overall, said Baird, the Food for Thought program is a success.
“The curriculum and garden stuff have all been very positive,” he said. “Kids are learning more about where food comes from and the kind of food that is healthy for them to eat. The program has succeeded in a number of areas.”
For more information about the Locally Grown 2 concert call 640-5044 or check the web site

No comments: