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Healthy options sprouting
District experiments with local lettuce
Food WEB 1
Susannah Speir harvests hydroponic lettuce Wednesday at Circle A Farms. The Forsyth County school system is buying lettuce from the local business as it works to create a healthier menu. - photo by Autumn Vetter

The days of frozen, overly processed foods like chicken nuggets and pizza may be coming to an end, or at least declining, in school lunchrooms across Forsyth County.

With recent changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s public school lunch requirements, school cafeterias are required to offer more healthy options.

Among the moves are limiting calorie counts to less than 850 for high school students, 700 for students in sixth through eighth grades, and 650 for elementary grades.

Andrea Perkins, assistant director of Forsyth County Schools’ food and nutrition services, said other federal requirements include: providing more fresh fruits and vegetables; increasing the portions of those items; and reducing the serving sizes of meats for elementary and middle school students.

Other changes, she said, include increasing the use the “whole grain rich” breads and pastas, reducing sodium counts and incorporating a wider range of fresh produce into meals.

“What they did is focus a greater portion size of fruits and vegetables at all grade levels, and they created subgroups for all fruits and vegetables that need to be offered throughout the week,” she said.

Perkins said while the system has always offered a number of salads, more will be available this year.

That’s good news for Jeff Adams, owner of Circle A Farms in west Forsyth.

Adams this spring began growing hydroponic lettuce. The lettuce is grown without soil, using a specialized system of water flow through tubing in greenhouses.

The school system and Adams recently entered into an agreement in which the system will buy the lettuce for its 39 schools from Circle A Farms, which produces romaine, bib and spring mix varieties.

“Our salad recipes have always focused on romaine and spinach, so now we’re going to try some of those locally grown ones as it makes sense for us economically,” Perkins said.

“This is our first attempt at doing farm-to-school, kind of locally grown, and we’re trying it so we’re seeing how well it will work.”

Adams is pleased with the venture, which he said “just kind of came to” the farm.

“We didn’t go looking for it, it was just kind of word of mouth,” he said.

He explained that one of daughters took some of the lettuce to her teacher at Sawnee Elementary.

“[The teacher] loved it and she gave some of it to the lady in charge of the lunchroom at Sawnee, and she thought it was wonderful and ended up giving it to the head of all the lunchrooms,” Adams said. “[School nutrition officials] came out and did a tour and decided it was something they wanted to try.”

Adams said the 6,000-square-foot greenhouse can grow up to about 2,000 heads of lettuce each week and he expects the school system will purchase about half of those.

Perkins called the venture with Adams “an experiment,” and Adams noted that the agreement is not a formal contract.

“They can quit at any time, but we’re trying it out to see if does work,” he said.

Perkins noted that the agreement remains fluid due to unknown factors.

“The schools use a lot of produce, so I’m not sure that he will be able to meet the demand because we serve a lot of salads,” she said. “But we’re going to try.”

She hopes the students will appreciate the local offerings.

“We’re excited to make that first step into more locally grown produce,” she said. “I hope the students will enjoy eating it more … it’s very fresh and I think the kids will see that. But it all depends on if they like to eat those leafy greens or not.”

As a father of five, Adams is pleased to see school lunches taking on more healthy options.

“Not dogging the lunches, but everybody knows they’re not the most healthy lunch, but I think they’re really trying to change that a lot,” he said.