Fresh and Fun School Lunches in the Adirondacks


Zohar Gitlis coordinates the Adirondack Farm to School Initiative (Photo by Megan Moody) 


Zohar Gitlis coordinates the Adirondack Farm to School Initiative and works part time at Essex Farm in Essex, NY.  From 2014 to 2016, Gitlis was a Program Manager at BMC. She fell in love with the woods, waters, mountains, and fields of North Country during her time guiding residents up Castle Rock and weeding through black flies in the BMC garden (she did move to the only region of the Adirondacks without black flies though…). Zohar’s current work combines her deep love for food, soil, and justice. 

Originally published in Implement Magazine, which covers the local food movement of the Adirondack-Champlain Valley region


On a late spring day in Saranac Lake, I’m giving out slices of raw, unseasoned rhubarb to Petrova Elementary School students who want to taste. The rhubarb is sourced from Adirondack Rhubarb Traditions, an aggregation company that was started by a former Saranac Lake school teacher. If students try the rhubarb, they get a sticker—a small reward that starts conversation. Some tell me their grandparents grow rhubarb and make pies in the summer. Others are confused by the celery look-alike that I insist has been baked into today’s lunch line dessert. Kids guess that the rhubarb will taste sweet, bitter, or sour. As they nibble samples, many suck in their cheeks, squint, and squeal. Word gets out that I have bite-sized pieces of nature’s best approximation of a Sour Patch Kid. Students come back for seconds and thirds.

Rhubarb grows like a weed in the Adirondack Mountains and surrounding North Country, a perennial crop that is perfectly at home in our short, cool growing seasons. As a program coordinator for the ADK Farm to School Initiative I often visit farmers, students, and school cafeteria staff to discuss our local food system. And I’ve seen that most North Country public schools are more likely to serve bananas or canned pineapple than rhubarb. Why? Even when a school’s food service director wants to source local food, our public institutions rely on systems geared toward corporate suppliers.

For years, there have been ongoing efforts to increase access to local foods in various pockets of the Adirondacks and North Country. But only recently have schools, community partners, and nonprofits begun to collaborate. They’re building an alternative food system that favors local farmers, eliminates processed foods heavy with chemicals and additives, reduces waste, and requires fewer food travel miles for every school lunch served. It works—and the health and economic advantages to locally grown and prepared foods are real.

ADK Farm to School started in 2012. The initiative was established as a partnership between public school districts; the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) for Hamilton, Essex, and Franklin counties; the nonprofit Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA); the Wild Center and its Youth Climate Program; the North Country Healthy Heart Network, and Paul Smith’s College. The initial goal was to spend 25 percent of produce budgets locally during the growing season—and that’s been met by the Saranac Lake Central School District.

Now, ADK Farm to School has grown to include Peru Central School District, Keene Central School, and informally, the rest of the districts that Keene’s Food Service Director Julie Holbrook serves. Many other schools in northern New York have reached out to us  for support with procurement, recipes, food curriculum, and school gardens. ADK Farm to School also works closely with the Hub on the Hill, a regional food hub that processes Champlain Valley produce into value-added products at its Essex facility. Together, the Hub and ADK Farm to School experiment with systems to aggregate local food sources and expand delivery throughout the North Country.

Saranac Lake Food Service Director Ruth Pino, who also serves as executive director of ADK Farm to School, wants to grow the program into a regional support network. “The barriers that food service directors face—budget, labor, inadequate kitchen equipment—are huge,” she says. “So changing things can be really intimidating.” Ruth has built relationships with local farmers over the years by walking them through the complexities of school purchasing requirements and inviting them into schools to work directly with students. She routinely purchases potatoes from Tucker Farms in Gabriels, carrots from Juniper Hill Farm in Wadhams, and spinach and kale from Fledging Crow Vegetables in Keeseville. She has also broken away from the larger food distributors to make purchases crop by crop. In collaboration with Adironcack North Country Asssociation, Ruth developed a purchasing rubric that weights geography and a farm’s willingness to host field trips alongside competitive pricing.

At Keene Central School (KCS), Food Service Director Julie Holbrook has found her own route to putting more local food in front of students. “Food is a religion; everybody has their approach,” she says. Since her start in 2007, Julie’s vision has been to build the Keene lunch program into a template for healthy, delicious, home cooked, and locally sourced school lunches. In large part, she’s been able to fund these changes by making more food on site, from scratch. For example, buying prepared pizza costs $4,680 per school year. But dough made in the KCS kitchen costs just $420 annually—which frees up $4,000 toward wages for the labor required to mix, knead, and roll out pizza dough. KCS students can buy homemade muffins for 50 cents. Making them in the school kitchen costs 12 cents, a hefty savings on the 28-cent unit price for premade muffins. The end result? Paid work for a school employee, and better nutrition for students.

Julie’s meticulous budgets bring lunch programs into the black by eliminating straws, processed foods, and packaging in exchange for the labor necessary to prepare food from local ingredients. (Another win: Julie swapped out Smartfood popcorn—which costs 28 cents for a 1-cup bag—for organic, GMO-free popcorn priced at 8 cents per serving.) In addition to baked goods listed above, Keene serves homemade bread, which saves $3,000 each year. Then there’s yogurt from Keeseville’s North Country Creamery, and, on cold winter days, sauces canned from tomatoes harvested locally in summer. These decisions were hard fought, requiring a committed, passionate staff willing to shift decades-old habits to promote health, save money, and support local jobs. Julie now also serves a number of North Country schools through the Champlain Valley Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Through recent collaborations with ANCA and ADK Farm to School, she has made more of her work accessible to other districts that want to move towards the Keene model.

“There is still a lot we need grow,” Ruth Pino reflects during a drive home from the statewide farm to school coordination meeting in Albany. It feels as though all of this should be easy. “We’re just trying to buy good food from our neighbors,” says Ruth. But Ruth, Julie, and their colleagues know that corporations—and their well-funded lobbyists—call the shots in school food policy. Still, ADK Farm to School aims to build healthy communities and divert funds back into our local food system, one rhubarb crisp at a time.

Back in Saranac Lake, the student rhubarb tasting was part of a regional pilot to replicate a Vermont program called Harvest of the Month. Organized by ADK Farm to School, The Hub On The Hill, and ANCA, the program will provide support for food service directors who want to feature local specialty crops in season. Participation in Harvest of the Month includes procurement coordination, plus marketing and educational materials that highlight harvests to engage students. Why does this matter? The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published a study which indicates that childhood gardening leads to higher vegetable consumption in adulthood. Anecdotally, most farm to school practitioners report that students are much more likely to try an unfamiliar vegetable if they had a hand in growing it. Thus, curriculum and garden programs provide essential support to local cafeteria procurement efforts.

Pea shoots have often been a favorite of Keene’s garden coordinator, Bunny Goodwin, who has helped students grow pea shoots for the Keene cafeteria for years. While it’s been a struggle to translate that program to other schools where teachers have less gardening experience, an ADK Farm to School curriculum pilot distributed pea shoot kits to teachers across the region, including classrooms in Old Forge, Wells, and Saranac. Participating teachers received seeding flats, soil, pea seeds, Bunny’s instructions and Common Core aligned curriculum.

Saranac Lake High School freshman Darron Walter Balch and aide Diana Hill grew pea shoots during the pilot this past school year. For three weeks, tending to the pea shoots was part of Darron and Diana’s daily routine. They planted, watered, and harvested the shoots together, ushering them from seed to plate. The shoots were served at the end of year BBQ for the special education classroom. While pea shoots were once an unfamiliar food to Darron, he now likes them on pizza and in salads. “They tasted heavenly,” he says.