For some Durangoans – whose insatiable appetite for organic, locally grown foods can surpass the available funds in their checking accounts – the quest to eat healthy can feel doomed, a case of enlightened champagne tastes betrayed by a beer budget.
But federal intervention means that, going forward, there will be fewer financial obstacles to healthful eating for Southwest Colorado’s children.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it is awarding Durango School District 9-R a grant totaling nearly $100,000 to expand its Farm-to-School program, which puts locally grown fruits, vegetables and meats in public-school cafeterias.
The grant money will be spent transforming a district building into a hub facility with lots more room and ample refrigeration. It will serve Bayfield, Ignacio, Cortez and Mancos school districts’ Farm-to-School programs in addition to Durango’s.
The USDA’s Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said more than 350 districts applied for the grant, and only 71 applications were successful.
He said the USDA decided to bestow $100,000 on Durango because it already has proved itself an innovator. Already, 20 percent of the food Durango students consume is locally grown.
“With grants like this, we’re building on the leadership and pioneering effort Durango has already shown,” Concannon said.
Like the uncomfortably tight clothes of a teenager in a growth spurt (or an adult fan of french fries), the district’s consumption of locally grown foods already has outstripped its capacity to store them, said Krista Garand, student nutrition director for the district.
Indeed, faced with particularly large volumes of locally grown food, the district occasionally has been forced to store excess fresh produce in Durango High School coolers.
Concannon said the new facility will allow Durango and the four surrounding districts to order potatoes, apples, squash and greens in a heretofore impossible dimension of bulk.
“It will let them purchase much larger amounts of food,” he said. “It provides additional infrastructure capacity, and we know that the issue of price leverage is important because schools have a limited number of dollars.”
District spokeswoman Julie Popp said the district’s mechanics building likely would be the food facility’s new home.
Depending when the USDA’s check comes in, Garand said, “We’ll start working on it as soon as we possibly can.
“Demolition – that needs to happen first and, of course, some buildout,” she said. “I’m not sure how they’re going to distribute the funds – but it would be fantastic if we were ready for the harvest season in August. I don’t know; that might be a little ambitious.”
In a week of grim local news, including the death of two miners in Ouray and a remembrance for Dylan Redwine, the grant’s announcement inspired much fanfare. Garand said she was delighted; Popp said the news was wonderful; the USDA sent out an effusive round of emails, and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office issued a triumphant news release announcing Durango had won a “$90,000” Farm-to-School grant.
Actually, the grant is for $99,998 – or $2 short of $100,000.
Asked why the USDA had awarded Durango $99,998 instead of a round $100,000, Concannon laughed, and said, “I think that was the sale price.”
Garand, who wrote the grant application, said the USDA wasn’t penny-pinching: $100,000 was the maximum grant, and when the district itemized its prospective spending, the bill ran to $99,998.
Asked how Garand would celebrate the grant, Popp suggested she’d “eat an apple.”
Garand laughed, saying she’d reread her grant application, “and think about all the things I have to do now.”
In terms of money, prestige and the district’s flourishing Farm-to-School program, Concannon said Durango has much to be proud of.
“I think Colorado is ahead of the curve in this regard in general,” he said. “And with this grant, we’re excited to build on a beachhead like Durango that has systems like this that have already made a creative, pioneering effort” to supply students with locally grown foods.
“I know we can prevail with this over time, and have healthier kids and happier kids,” he said.
Concannon said if Durango kept up all it’s good work with Farm-to-Schools, it might yet receive more grants.
“Next time, we’ll see what we can do about the $2,” he said.