Call it corn shucking or corn husking, the group of eager fifth-graders at East Farms Elementary needed only 10 minutes to make 100 ears of fresh corn bare and prepped for cooking.
The corn had been picked from a local farm the night before, delivered that morning and would be on students’ lunch trays the next day. It’s all part of the East Valley School District’s drive to move away from pre-packaged foods and toward more fresh produce, said food services director Georjean Kuntz.
Teacher Kathy Barrett said her students were excited to help out. “I think they’re just thrilled,” she said. “I think my class is the first to do it.”
The students laughed and chattered as they struggled to pick off strands of corn silk with plastic-gloved hands. One student wondered about an ear that had mud on it. “That’s OK, it’ll wash,” said kitchen manager Kim Cash. “Make sure you get the silk, otherwise it gets stuck in your teeth.”
A lot of the fresh food comes from Fresh Start Farm and Carver’s Farm. Other items are provided by Charlie’s Produce, a fruit farm in Omak and Food Services of America. “We’ve got some wonderful sources within hand reach,” Kuntz said.
Anyone who shops at grocery stores knows that buying fresh fruits and vegetables can be more expensive than buying cheaper prepared meals. Kuntz said she increased her budget for fresh items but thinks the money she saves from buying fewer commodities will help even things out. The district is also getting a discount on much of the fresh food. “If you can get the kids to eat, it’s worth the cost.”
The changes have been well received by students, and Superintendent John Glenewinkel praised the food at a recent board meeting.
“We’ve gone to traditional,” Kuntz said. “We do more baking, more fresh fruits and vegetables. The taste is unbelievable. The kids are absolutely loving it.”
“I have never worked in a school where kids liked the school lunches until I came here,” said East Farms Principal Frank Brou.
Cash said that the kitchen workers requested the menu changes. “We were not happy with the old program,” she said. “They worked with us, and it changed for the better.”
The cooks are busier now that they’re making more things from scratch, but they don’t mind. “It’s worth it,” said Cash. “The kids are giving us compliments.”
The students do indeed seem to be voting with their feet – or perhaps their stomachs. Cash said she’s serving more students every day, and other schools are also reporting an increase in the number of students eating meals.
Since the program started, students have been introduced to foods that they haven’t been served before, including plums and nectarines. Squash will start appearing on lunch trays soon. When the local farms shut down for the winter, the district will turn to its other providers to still provide fresh options.
“We’re pretty proud of the meals we’ve been serving,” said Kuntz.