Submitted by L.Kelly
In July of 2022, Jessie Mazur, director of the Lost Sierra Food Project/Rugged Roots Farm, and Lisa Kelly – an educator, put their heads and keyboards together. Their goal was to plan and develop cohesive applications to address the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) Farm to School Incubator Grant request for proposals.
As part of California’s nation-leading investment in farm-to-school programs, the CDFA announced $25.5 million in funding for 120 farm-to-school projects across the state. In total, these projects represent 1,489,364 students, 163 school districts and educational entities, over 50 farms, four food hubs and enormous support from California’s urban, rural and suburban communities. Mazur and Kelly identified two distinct tracks to serve Plumas, Sierra and Lassen counties. Mazur wrote to Track 1 called a Producer Grant, while Kelly wrote to Track 2 called the School Partnership Grant. Both grant applications were awarded.
For the Producer Grant, The Lost Sierra Food Project is committed to “engage every K-12 student in Plumas County through farm-based programming on its 2.5-acre regenerative farm (Rugged Roots) and school gardens throughout Plumas Unified School District. The Lost Sierra Food Project will also expand its infrastructure to increase fruit and vegetable production for cafeterias in its mountainous region, using climate-smart practices.” The Producer Grant proposes to employ the CDFA funds to run K-6 field trips at the farm (schools) – focusing on growing more produce to be incorporated in school cafeterias and support coordination between garden educators in and among schools.
For Track 2, the School Partnership Grant is committed to: “Partner with the Plumas Sierra County Fair Foundation, in an effort to collaborate with regional food producers and regional academic institutions, to expand the capacity of schools to offer locally sourced food, year-round, by developing a central commissary/training kitchen to teach students and staff to procure, preserve, and package farm products.” As Kelly states – “let’s increase the availability of and access to locally sourced farm-fresh food for Plumas, Sierra and Lassen County students on a year-round basis!”
The two tracks were awarded, in part, because of the attractiveness of a “total food system” approach. Both grantees work with CDFA consultants to manage the funds and support managers in implementing the grant objectives. “The CDFA support has been instrumental, is readily available and highly supportive,” says Cait McCloskey, Farm to School Coordinator (a new position supported by Track 2).
According to Farmer Kari (Kari O’Reilly), “On the surface, this project is about getting local healthy produce into our school cafeterias. But in order for this to be successful, we need to create a holistic loop that encompasses education, training, and food access. For example, it takes a lot of coordination between local farms and school cafeterias to make sure farmers are growing the food that school cafeterias need. At the same time, cafeterias need to create tasty, new student-approved recipes that utilize farm fresh produce. On top of all this, cafeteria workers need training on how to process and cook with these new ingredients. They are an essential part of this project, and we are working to make sure they are heard and supported so they are not overburdened while taking on new ingredients and recipes on top of a job that’s already very demanding.”
All of this is crucially important, but it leaves out the most important people in the equation – our Plumas County students! As part of this plan, students will take field trips to local farms so that they can see for themselves what it takes to grow enough kale to feed hundreds of people. They will pull bright orange carrots from the earth and watch bees pollinate a butternut squash flower. O’Riley states that “We know from countless studies that kids (and people in general) are more likely to eat food that they have positive relationships with, and they associate with positive experiences. Students will further deepen their relationships with farm produce by making cafeteria recipes from their school gardens.”
Farm to School Coordinator Cait McClosky asserts, “What we want is for students is to see these tasty recipes featuring farm fresh produce and be ready and excited to enjoy them.” “Through field trips and cooking activities, this project will give students a sense of ownership and pride in their school lunches,” says Tracy Darue, Food Service Director for Plumas Unified School District. In all, every piece of this puzzle depends on every other piece, and as they come together, they reveal a picture where our local farms are thriving and our students are eating the most healthy, delicious food possible. As Darue puts it, “Cait is my right hand when it comes to the Farm to School efforts and being fairly new to the District, having a strong team makes it all possible.”
There will be challenges, mostly due to the short growing season in Plumas County and the small producer network. Overcoming these challenges is what makes this project so important. Track 1 addresses the need for climate-smart agricultural practices to hopefully extend the season to some extent, and Track 2 will involve preserving farm products and cultivating a food system that incorporates items with a longer shelf life. Thanks to the many grant partners, these challenges can be addressed. Among the many grant partners are High Sierra Honey and Panarchy Mills, a wheat producer providing product expertise for recipe creation and cooking.
The grant also serves Sierra and Lassen County school food service providers. Workshops will be streamed to these sites with equipment purchased by the grant, as one of the objectives is “educating food service workers on preservation methods.” This is right up the alley of another grant partner – UC Cooperative Extension. Other activities supported by Track 1 include events at the Rugged Roots Farm. There will be Cooking Demonstrations by Chef Sean Conry (Feather River College) and Chef Mike Brown (Wildflower Café) on August 22nd at 5:30. On Sept. 5th, and there will be a Fermentation Workshop and a Canning Workshop on Sept. 19th by Nancy Gambell, Master Food Preserver. There will be an Herbal Kitchen workshop on Sept 12th by the Wild Mountain Herbal Collective in addition to the amazing Farm Stand every Tuesday.
Jessie Mazur, Lost Sierra Food Project Executive Director, states: “We look forward to more scratch cooking with local produce, experimenting with recipe development, and offering more taste tests in the schools. We are also excited to teach students that fresh food is delicious.” Says Kelly, “We are honored to be among the highly regarded groups awarded these funds. The 2022 grant cycle received over $58 million in application requests which was triple the number of project proposals from the previous year, highlighting the growth of farm to school programs across the state.”
For more information, contact Jessie Mazur of the Lost Sierra Food Project, Lisa Kelly, and Cait McClosky of the Feather River Food System Collaborative.