The nostalgia of broccoli

Farmer Missy Neville from Mountain Bounty with November’s Harvest of the Month (photo by Amanda Thibodeau)

I’ve been coordinating the Harvest of the Month program for a long time now, just about 6 years.  Starting with 7 schools and eventually expanding to 21 elementary and middle schools, 4 high schools and now the hospital- the program has become an entity unto itself.  I’ve overseen 40 different pickups of local and regional fruits and veggies throughout the years and had just about everything that can go wrong happen.  Pouring rain?  Check.  Half the amount that you ordered?  Check.  The wrong item?  Check.  Farmers unable to fill the order you placed the day before pickup?  Check, check, check.

Since this program began in 2008, we’ve sampled 32 different types of local, regional, organic produce in schools all over the county.  From easy wins like mandarins and kiwis, to suspicious roots like salad turnips and radishes- local students have tried more new, raw veggies in the last 5 years than I ever had until I was at least in my mid twenties.  Thanks to Harvest of the Month, there are third graders with a more varied palate than many adults I know. 

As I look back on so many tastings, the ones that stick in my memory are the weird ones.  The ones where I connected with new farmers, surmounted ridiculous logistical challenges and most of all surprised and delighted 7,000 kids.  Some of my favorite moments include: 

Chopping hundreds of pounds of red cabbage for the Harvest of the Month (Feb. 2016) – (photo Miriam Limov)
  • Shredding hundreds of pounds of green and red cabbage with 10 volunteers and wondering if the students would like it- just raw and in a bag. (Spoiler alert- they were into it!  Both times!)
  • Sending out detailed instructions on how to eat a kumquat (Roll it, sniff it, keep chewing till it tastes sweet).
  • Helping one farm to school liaison fill her convertible full with boxes of peppers sticking out the top and wondering if she’d make it back to school safely…
  • Working with Farmer Javier on getting jicama cut and packaged out to 300 classes- and having each classroom receive its own full jicama plant so they knew what it looks like growing. I had never seen a jicama plant before our delivery- it’s the root of a long beautiful vine, and it’s a legume.  Who knew?

Or there are the times when the farmer has had an excess of a particular item and we’ve been able to make it happen as a win-win for both the farmer and the schools.  Asian pears from up and coming farmers who didn’t have a good market or a bumper crop of persimmons that needed a home.  Family farmers, real people who are making their living growing food, provide the produce that goes out to the students- and Harvest of the Month is making a difference for their businesses.  These stories are what make farm to school so special in my book.

Of course there are great stories of field trips to farms, of guest chefs leading students in cooking tasty, seasonal recipes- but those are stories for another time.  At the heart of Farm to School is Harvest of the Month.  It happens every month, for every student in every classroom.  The farm to school liaisons who deliver it are hounded by students for leftovers- kids want to know what’s coming this month and what will be next.  So far, over 16 TONS of produce have been served- one taste test at a time. 

Mountain Bounty broccoli bagged up and ready for HOM (photo Amanda Thibodeau)

This month’s highlight is broccoli from Mountain Bounty Farm.  A local treasure, Mountain Bounty has been growing beautiful produce for 20 years!  At this point in Harvest of the Month, what we’re asking farmers for is nothing short of a miracle.  Seriously.  We want a significant quantity of food ready on one particular day, packaged up just so.  This November, it’s 604 pounds of broccoli divvied into 2 pound bags, washed up and ready to eat.  And despite also packing hundreds of CSA boxes, and slogging through cold mud after the first rains of the year, Mountain Bounty delivered a literal mountain of broccoli.  Their broccoli is also highlighted in the NJUHSD Foothills Fresh school meal program this month, and on the menu at the hospital as part of a new partnership with Dignity Health.  These are the relationships our local food network is made of, and there are a lot of passionate people committed to making it happen. 

So why am I waxing poetic about Harvest of the Month?  Please forgive my produce nostalgia.  It’s not as if it’s the end of the school year- but for me it is the end of an era.  I’m hanging up my hat as the Farm to School Director in favor of spending more time on our own family farm, creating and scheming on new food and farming ventures, and caring for our one-year-old daughter.  It’s a bittersweet moment in time, but I’m excited to see where the program goes and what the new Director brings to the table.  And if Sierra Harvest’s track record is any indication, what’s on the table is bound to be delicious (and local).