Durango is rightfully famous for its culinary striving.
It is said to have more restaurants per capita than San Francisco.
At its upscale eateries – such as Seasons Rotisserie and Grill, Eolus Bar and Dining, and Ken & Sue’s – diners gorge on organic apples, locally grown potatoes and beef from Sunnyside Farms, their bellies swelling with the finest ingredients while their wallets grow suddenly slimmer.
But while Main Avenue chefs consistently achieve the extraordinary with fruits, vegetables and meats grown and raised in La Plata County, they aren’t nearly as ambitious as Durango School District 9-R, the undisputed titan of cooking in Durango.
The elephant in the restaurant business
In terms of sheer size, the district’s mission of providing students with healthful meals they’ll actually eat makes even the most esoteric local tasting menus appear but measly accomplishments.
Collectively, the school district serves more than 2,400 meals a day, said school district spokeswoman Julie Popp.
Annually, it spends $1 million feeding its students.
And thanks to programs such as Farm to School, 20 percent of the food Durango students consume is produced locally, said Krista Garand, the district’s student nutrition director.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Kevin Concannon, under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, who is promoting Farm to School programs nationally, said Durango School District is far ahead of the state average.
The average Colorado district spends 16 percent of its food budget on local foods through Farm to School, he said.
It’s a paradox that would delight Alice Waters, apostle of the organic food movement:
In a town where “locally grown” is tantamount to gastronomic dogma, Durango’s school children are putting the city’s most ardent epicureans to shame.
Eat your vegetables
Children are eminently unadventurous eaters, with many picky youngsters spurning salads for pasta with butter well into adolescence.
And historically, cafeteria food has been a bleak affair, with students nobly combating the tyranny of frozen peas and mystery meats with insurgent, grass-roots efforts sustained by gas stations well-stocked with candy bars and junk food.
Yet food – good food – is vital to children’s academic performance: Unhealthy and hungry children struggle to pay attention in class; their moods can be volatile; and the upset stomachs, headaches and sickness that stem from unbalanced diets often land kids in the nurse’s office.
At a time when obesity is beyond crisis point for American school children, supplying youngsters with nutritious foods is also paramount to the long-term health of the country.
In a phone interview, Concannon said the Farm to School program is vital to overcoming children’s native preference for chocolate milk, pizza and french fries over milk, oranges and green beans: Research shows children find fruits and vegetables more approachable when they’re told they were grown just a few miles away.
Garand said in Durango, school meals have gotten more healthful and much more nutritious because of Farm to School.
The program is augmented with school-driven initiatives that familiarize children with agricultural processes. At Animas Valley Elementary school, kids collect tomatoes, red lettuce, radishes and carrots from a greenhouse and garden on the premises. Escalante Middle and Needham Elementary schools also have on-site gardens and greenhouses that produce foods that are served in school cafeterias.
Garand said that whereas broccoli in supermarkets is “sometimes three months old,” nearly all the Farm to School food is served to kids within a week of harvest.
“Fresh lettuce, fresh tomatoes – sometimes they’re eating them the very next day. Unless you’re going to the farmers market and buying the foods on Saturday mornings, it’s fresher than we can imagine if you’re just shopping at the supermarket,” she said.
Good food, good value
While the food Durango students are devouring is farmers market quality, the district is paying considerably less than farmers market prices, which sometimes provoke shoppers to wonder whether their organic kale comes with a side of organic gold.
Garand said she places bids on the food products she wants to buy a year ahead of time.
Local farmers respond, and she determines which pitches offer the district the best value.
Because the district is ordering local produce in volumes no downtown restaurant can compete with, local farmers can sell their wares at heavily reduced rates.
“A lot of them have restaurant accounts,” Garand said. “But as opposed to peddling a little here and a little there, if we serve ground beef, it’s 250 pounds in a day, and 500 pounds of potatoes. I can make a purchase of 3,000 pounds of apples. It will take us just two weeks to go through that.”
She said though local farmers still have to recoup their costs, by and large, “We are getting what you’d consider a wholesale price, and sometimes better than that.”
She said local farmers are often willing to part with their organic carrots at bargain rates because they “care about putting healthy, nutritious food out there for kids.”
But she also said the farms financially benefit from the program.
Garand said, “We had a farmer who started out growing one crop, but because of Farm to School, they’ve been able to completely change their business model. We’ve taken little farms that really weren’t viable, and they’ve tripled their product because of us.”
Concannon echoed her, saying the program is vital to local economies, particularly in rural areas like La Plata County.
Indeed, a list of farms providing fresh produce and meat to the district looks like a who’s who of local agriculture: Sunnyside Meats, LB Brands Coop, Mountain Roots Produce, Fields to Plate Produce, Mattics Orchards, Animas Valley Farms, Four Seasons Nursery, Stone Free Farms, Adobe Farms, Confluence Farm, Eagletree Farm, Bountiful Ridge Farm, Chimney Rock Farms, The Wily Carrot and Blue Horizon Farm.
Today, students will enjoy penne pasta with meat sauce, a dinner roll, fresh fruit and vegetables, and milk. The meat comes from Sunnyside Meats Inc.