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Organic education: Bolinas, Stinson students to get fresh lunches

New client: Paige Phinney of Marin Organic delivers food to Cindylu Janison, prep cook at the kitchen at New Beginnings in Novato. Marin Organic will be delivering to the Bolinas-Stinson school district when school begins in the fall. IJ photo/Frankie Frost


Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal


Bolinas School and Warren Weber's Star Route Farms are neighbors, sharing the same fence.

From time to time, Weber has passed some of his renowned organic produce over the fence, so to speak, for the school children's lunches.

When school starts this fall, the students in the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District will be served fresh food - meats and produce and dairy products - from Weber's fields and from all of Marin's organic farms.

The Bolinas and Stinson Beach campuses are the first West Marin schools to sign up for the rapidly expanding Marin Organic School Lunch Program.

"West Marin students deserve better food," said Helge Hellberg, executive director of Point Reyes Station-based Marin Organic, an association of organic farmers and producers. "For them to be on board means they have access now not only to Warren's beautiful produce, but also to the array of products we offer every week. There's an amazing abundance here in West Marin."

Schools have been jumping on the organic lunch bandwagon as they acquire the budgets, kitchen equipment and staff to prepare the uncooked organic foods on their campuses.

"We are virtually adding a school every week or so," Hellberg said, noting that 4,000 students in 28 Marin public and private schools will be served during the school year.

Typical menus include organic hamburgers, hot dogs, cheeses and steamed and roasted vegetables. For example, one school served organic carrot cake with vanilla yogurt parfait from the Straus Family Creamery.

"It's a wonderful effort to connect local organic farmers with local schools," Hellberg said. "Everyone wins, but the real winners are the students."

The way the program works is that Marin Organic offers the schools and other agencies free organic food that is considered "gleaned" - mislabeled yogurt, fruit and vegetables with cosmetic blemishes, meats with fat content not quite right for a commercial market.

"The market is so strict that 20 percent of everything that's grown would not be used at all, it would be just left in the field," Hellberg explained. "That has amounted to way over 40,000 pounds of free food that we have delivered since the program started a year and a half ago."

Under the program, conducted in partnership with the Marin Food Systems Project, a part of the Environmental Education Council of Marin, schools are asked to order any additional certified organic local produce that they may need from Marin Organic's member farms. At the average school, 50 percent of the food is free and 50 percent is purchased.

"For the first time ever, farmers have the opportunity to sell at a regular price to these schools," Hellberg said. "And schools get free food as well as the purchased food delivered once a week to their campus. It's a way of not wasting food while opening up a market."

At the same time, students are learning about the farmers who are growing the food by visiting farms and actually working on them as volunteers.

In May, a group of 100 teenagers from San Anselmo's Sir Francis Drake High School volunteered to pull thistles at West Marin's Chileno Valley Ranch.

"In an organic operation, they can't use any harmful substances, so pasture management is labor intensive and costly," Hellberg said. "These kids were really helpful. They really made a huge impact."

Next month, a contingent of food service staff from Marin schools will take a farm tour to learn about growing organic products and how to prepare them.

It's part of the educational component of the program, teaching students and school staff about the benefits of buying and serving organic local foods rather than relying on USDA surplus commodities and nonorganic products from large commercial distributors.

"Institutional inertia is so powerful - the desire to keep things the way they've always been done," said Leah Smith, director of the Marin Food Systems Project. "So this is an important shift for schools on many levels. It takes the whole school system for it to really work."

Participants in the program include the public Tamalpais High School District, the Novato Unified School District, the Dixie and Sausalito school districts as well as the private Branson School, Marin Academy, Walker Creek Outdoor School.

Other agencies include the North Bay Children's Center, College of Marin, the Canal Alliance, Marin Headstart, the San Geronimo Cultural Center, Point Bonitas YMCA, Stockstill House and Walnut Place.

"The feedback we're getting from the participating schools is that the number of sales is up every week as the kids learn that it's organic food grown locally," Hellberg said.

Contact reporter Paul Liberatore via e-mail at liberatore@marinij.com