DENTON — Denton Elementary School hosted the kickoff event Thursday, Sept. 26, for this year’s Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week.

The weeklong, statewide event, now in its 12th year, will highlight fresh, locally grown food by featuring it in school lunches Sept. 30 through Oct. 4.

Homegrown School Lunch Week is part of the Jane Lawton Farm to School Program, signed into law in 2008 to help students learn about the origin of their food, how it is produced and the benefits of a healthy diet, and to expand markets for Maryland farmers.

The kickoff event at Denton Elementary School, attended by local and state officials, including State School Superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon and Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder, featured a tasting room full of locally produced samples of everything from oysters to apple cider.

Also attending were Denton Elementary School fifth grade students, as well as high school students in the Caroline Career and Technology Center’s culinary arts and agricultural science programs.

“This is a very special event for Denton Elementary School, as well as for Caroline County,” Principal Susan McCandless said. “Caroline County is the Green Garden County, and agriculture is such an important part of what we do here every day.”

Caroline County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Milton Nagel described several ways the school system’s food services department gets local food into students’ meals.

This past summer was the third one during which food services employees worked with the Maryland Food Bank to glean thousands of pounds of local crops, Nagel said, which were frozen to be served in school lunches throughout the coming school year.

Nagel said this summer alone, more than 10,000 pounds of produce was prepared.

The program, founded by Food Services Coordinator Beth Brewster, gives food services employees work if they want it during the summer months, Nagel said, and puts money in the pockets of local farmers.

Nagel said the school system’s cafeterias use pork products throughout the year from pigs raised by Caroline Career and Technology Center instructor Jodi Callahan’s animal agricultural science class, in a barn on school property Callahan raised the funds to build.

The school system also buys about 30 bushels of apples per month from Blades Orchard, between Preston and Federalsburg, and contracts with a local bakery and local berry farmer to make blueberry muffins that are served as part of the free in-classroom breakfast every student in the county gets every day, Nagel said.

Soon, the school system will begin sending home frozen one-sheet meals with students dealing with food insecurity, Nagel said, and part of the recently established Farming 4 Hunger initiative put a hydroponic garden in every elementary school, so students can see how lettuce is grown, harvested and used in school lunches.

Salmon said healthy food is important because it makes people better thinkers.

“That makes us more able to contribute to the world,” Salmon said.

Salmon said Maryland public schools serve more than 405,000 meals every day and, every year, spend $18 million on local food products for those meals.

Salmon encouraged the fifth grade students in the room to talk to the high school culinary arts and agricultural sciences students, if they were interested in those programs once they reach high school.

Bartenfelder said Maryland is the first state in the U.S. to have all of its school districts participating in Homegrown School Lunch Week, and it is in the top 10 in the nation for the amount of locally produced food served in schools.

“Local tastes better, is more nutritious, it’s better for the environment, and it helps keep agriculture in business,” Bartenfelder said.

Bartenfelder presented a governor’s citation to Caroline County Public Schools, accepted by Nagel and Brewster, and a Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary’s Citation to Denton Elementary School, accepted by McCandless.

Following the remarks, the fifth grade students had a chance to try all the samples in the room, while a lunch was served of local blue catfish tacos.

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