Eastern Shore Farm to School Field Trip

How does a Delaware watermelon travel from a field to a school cafeteria? On our field trip to the Eastern Shore we saw the process firsthand, in addition to meeting all sorts of local food growers, processors and distributors. In fact, midway through the trip, Chartwells’ Dietician for DCPS Whitney Bateson just couldn’t help exclaiming, “I’m learning so much about agriculture!”

On Tuesday July 26th the D.C. Farm to School Network organized a group of D.C. and Maryland school food stakeholders on a field trip to Delaware and Maryland to explore large scale local food resources. David Marvel of Marvel Farms was our trusted guide and expert farmer.

In case you were wondering, Mar-Del watermelons are painstakingly grown on viney bushes in sandy fields. At harvest time, skilled “cutters” comb the field for ripe melons and turn them belly up (so that the lighter side is facing up). Watermelon vehicles, which are recycled school buses with the seats and windows taken out, drive up and down the rows as harvesters load the ripe melons in. Then, each school bus transports about 18,000 pounds of melons to local packaging houses. The watermelons are sent along a long conveyor belt, smacked with a sticker, and are sorted into different grades based on size. They’re packed into the big boxes you see in supermarkets, and are loaded into tractor trailer trucks for distribution.

Coastal Growers watermelon operation was only one of our many stops on our tour - we started the day at SEW Friel, a sweet corn processing facility. Enormous truckloads of corn pulled up to be canned while we chatted with the owner, Jay Friel, about the operation. Did you know that canning only occurs during a few months in the summer to ensure that the corn is canned when it’s fresh? Farmers stagger their plantings to extend the season, but during the rest of the year the cannery focuses on other tasks, like applying labels to the cans.

Next we visited FoodSwing, a company that specializes in making boxed products - like the chicken soup broth in a box you see at the grocery store. We learned that packaging food in this way makes shipping about 20% more efficient since the packages fit together perfectly, and it preserves the nutritional value of the product inside. FoodSwing’s modern machinery was in full swing when we walked through, popping out hundreds boxes of turkey gravy by the minute!

We also visited a packing house at Vincent Farms where they sorted and packed tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, sweet corn, and more. They had a special tool to sort watermelons by weight - as melons came down the conveyor belt, a computer registered their weight and kicked them off the belt at the right station to be packed into boxes.

We picked apples, peaches, and nectarines straight from the orchards at T.S. Smith and Sons farm, and got a personal tour. Although T.S. Smith and Sons is a family farm started in 1907, they are constantly innovating. They recently installed an efficient drip irrigation system for their asparagus field, and power their cooling facilities with solar panels!

Finally, we swung by Kenny Brothers Produce to tour the cucumber sorting and grading facility. The cucumbers are washed from the back of eighteen-wheelers onto sophisticated machinery that prepares the cukes for shipment to pickling companies like Vlasic and Mt. Olive. They have a special supercooling station where sorted cucumbers are brought down to about 40 degrees before they leave the premises.

We couldn’t leave Delaware without visiting the state fair! It was “healthy kids day,” but we were so exhausted by the time we got there, it was all we could do to just eat our peach ice cream (made with T.S. Smith and Sons peaches) and head home.

The result of our trip? We learned that there are many large, family farms close to D.C. with the capacity to feed our schools, and facilities that can preserve local food to help extend the growing season.

View more photos from the trip here.

1 comment:

  1. Typical local products include pears, apples, sweet potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes and more. Revolution Foods and D.C. Central Kitchen serve 7 schools each, and include at least 20% local foods in DCPS school meals as defined in the DCPS contract language.

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