Last September I stood in the kitchen at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School with 14 other volunteers and 1,600 pounds of fresh roma tomatoes, picked that morning at Morning Glory Farm. The farm owners realized they were not going to be able to harvest this bounty themselves before the ripe and tender fruit was past its prime, and had opened their fields to the Island Grown Gleaning volunteers to pick all they could. The gleaners delivered the tomatoes to the school, and the team of cafeteria staff, parents, students and community members I was a part of had gathered to chop and freeze the tomatoes for the schools to use in lunches through the long winter months to come.
Together we made short work of the intimidating number of overflowing boxes, and at the end of a few hours marveled at the bags and bags of beautiful red tomatoes we had processed that would be used in soups, spaghetti sauces and stews in the school kitchens. Months later, cafeteria staff were still using those tomatoes to enrich the more than 1,300 meals they prepare each day for the children in Martha’s Vineyard schools.
Such is the bounty of September, when tomatoes hang heavy on the vine in home gardens, school gardens and farms across the Island.
I can’t think of a more perfect food or a more perfect month to kick off Island Grown Harvest of the Month, a new program of Island Grown Schools that will highlight a different locally available crop each month of the school year in school cafeterias, restaurants and grocery stores. The goal is to help children, their caregivers and the broader community experience healthy, seasonal meals based on whole foods, while supporting local and regional farmers.
Participating school cafeterias will highlight each month’s featured item at least twice on their menus. Island Grown Schools will hold taste tests and provide lessons in classrooms and cafeterias to help students be open to trying these foods, and will send home a featured recipe and nutritional information for families each month. We will also feature more recipes and ideas on how to use these crops on our website (islandgrown.org/schools).
Harvest of the Month products will be sourced from Island growers as often as possible, and we will look to regional farms to source what cannot be provided locally. Cronig’s Market will work with regional distributors to procure items from off-Island farms at prices the schools can afford, and Produce Connection will help deliver the locally and regionally-grown foods to school kitchens.
Island Grown Harvest of the Month won’t end in the school cafeterias. Local grocery stores and restaurants will also feature the monthly crops, with Harvest of the Month signs and special menu items at restaurants and deli counters.
Similar programs have met with great success in California, Oregon and elsewhere across the country, but Martha’s Vineyard will be the first school system in Massachusetts to try Harvest of the Month. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources statewide Farm to School program plans to promote Harvest of the Month across the commonwealth in the 2013-2014 school year. The state agriculture department will monitor the experiences we have this year on the Vineyard to help guide the development of similar initiatives in other communities.
You can become a part of Harvest of the Month by trying out these foods with your family, submitting recipes on the Harvest of the Month website, or volunteering to help with taste tests in the schools, gleaning in farm fields, or preservation days like the one I was a part of last fall.
This month, celebrate the tomato! Try saving seeds from heirloom tomatoes from your garden or from a local farm stand to plant next year. Try out Chris Fischer’s delicious and easy-to-prepare oven-roasted tomatoes, our featured recipe of the month; pick up a recipe card at Cronig’s Market or print one out from our website. Most important, don’t let all those tomatoes in your garden go to waste! Freeze, can, organize your own processing day with friends — they will stand as bright sentinels in the freezer or pantry during the winter months, ready to be used in soups and sauces, reminders that the long days and warmth of the summer will return.
Noli Taylor is executive director of Island Grown Schools, a program of the Island Grown Initiative. This column will appear monthly in the Gazette throughout the duration of the Harvest of the Month program. For more information, go to islandgrown.org/schools.