October was "National Farm to School" month. The Anchorage School District used that month to test production runs using potatoes from VanderWeele Farm in Palmer. Tuesday, students across the district got a special Thanksgiving-themed lunch after ASD went into full production of homegrown potatoes.

"There is some pretty big potential here for local produce," Andy Mergens with the ASD Student Nutrition Department said. "In this particular case, we are using potatoes grown on farms in the valley as kind of a test case, a pilot project to see if we can economically and feasibly take a raw product that is produced here in Alaska, process it in our central kitchen facilities and ultimately serve it to the students in the schools."

The idea to is the brainchild of Andy Mergens and Jodie Anderson, from the state Division of Agriculture. They came up with the idea about a year ago.

"She said there is a lot of stuff that is grown in Alaska," Mergens said. "There is a lot of consumers there. The problem is, like many things in Alaska, there is nobody to do the processing of it."  

Anderson suggested that the central kitchen in the Anchorage School District, along with some of the other large school districts in the state, could take local products and potentially render them from their natural state and ultimately provide them to consumers. In this case, the students, to be able to serve them something that is locally grown but a clean healthy product that comes from locally grown farms.

"Most of the potatoes that go to market are the USDA number one Grade A potato which is about your average baking size potato," Mergens said. "We don't necessarily need that. What the farmers in Palmer are saying is that they have potato's that are not the Grade A number ones, they are smaller, off size and can't do anything with them but till them back into the soil or give them to the pig farmers."

Mergens asked if he could use the unwanted potatoes because all he would do with them is turn them into mashed potatoes.

"It doesn't matter what size they are," Mergens said. "We peel them, we boil them, we mash them and we put them in the meals we are serving our kids."

On average, ASD serves over 30,000 meals a day. A production run's weight of potatoes would be around 8,000 pounds for one day worth of meals. It takes about a day and a half to process those potatoes for a lunch.

The potato process is just the tip of the iceberg -- if all goes well, it could lead to more farm to school produce which could include carrots, cabbage, apples and even locally grown meats in the near future.

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