Farm-to-school programs feature school purchases of food (usually fresh fruits and vegetables) from local farmers. Nutrition lessons are often coordinated with the fresh produce being served for lunch. Programs can also include Ag-in-the-Classroom curriculum, school gardens, food tastings and cooking classes, and farm/farmer visits, all of which get kids excited about healthy food.
Farm-to-school programs contribute to children’s health by helping kids develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime. According to research into existing farm-to-school efforts, students choose significantly more servings of fruits and vegetables when given the choice of high quality, farm-fresh produce. When they are well-nourished, children learn better.
Several research studies have shown that kids will eat more fruits and vegetables when they have easy access to a variety of high quality fresh items, often on a salad bar where they have many different choices. Kids from different socio-economic levels respond similarly.
Research and the experience of educators has also established that kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, especially unfamiliar items, if they participate in fun educational activities featuring these foods.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are highly nutritious. Fresh produce is often highest in key vitamins and minerals.
Nutritionists believe that because fresh produce looks appetizing, has an appealing texture, and often tastes much better than processed, that people are more likely to eat it and improve their overall nutrition.
Because locally grown produce is likely harvested at peak ripeness and brought to the consumer in the shortest time possible, it is often of the highest quality--attractive to the eye, with pleasant odor, flavor, texture and feel– and if handled properly, with high nutritive value. People are more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables when they are of high quality.
Farm-to-school opens up a large new market for farmers. The potential for significant sales exists: in North Carolina, for example, farmers sold $500,000 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables to state schools in 2004-2005. In Oklahoma, according to one estimate, farmers could sell $6 million worth of fruits and vegetables to schools. Such dollars are recirculated into rural communities, improving the economy.
Programs exist in 400 school districts in 23 states, including Maryland. The Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Maryland State Department of Education are spearheading the Maryland program.
Karen Fedor is the point of contact for the Maryland’s farm-to-school program. She works to promote the program and connect farmers and schools. She can be reached at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, (410) 841-5773; email@example.com.
Maryland grown food can be offered as part of a school lunch, breakfast, as snacks, or in some schools, offered on a salad bar.
The school lunch program is federally funded. School systems are reimbursed for every school meal they serve. Reimbursements fall into three categories— free, reduced, and full price.
Several states have found that a coordinator is very helpful in getting the program up and running. North Carolina, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Washington have farm-to-school coordinators who facilitate their programs, as do some school districts, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico.
California recently passed legislation funding greater procurement of California-grown fruits and vegetables. In North Carolina, the state provided $1,000 “start-up” grants the first year to 50 schools to make purchases from NC farmers; $500 in the second year. The program is now operating successfully without grant funding.
The program currently has no designated funding. Staff from the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), the Maryland State Depart of Education MSDE), the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation (MAEF), the Maryland Farm Bureau (MFB), as well as county school personnel and others are working to make the program a success.
Yes. As additional resources become available, the farm-to-school program can be expanded to include more schools, more products, more farmers, and more food and nutrition education.
A farm-to-school program could potentially benefit farms of various sizes. Large school districts may be a good market for larger quantities of fruits and vegetables already grown on a commercial scale in Maryland, such as watermelons. Smaller-scale local farms could connect with small and medium-sized schools in the state.
A new market for Maryland farm products could spur farm diversification, encouraging Maryland farms to grow a greater diversity of crops that could be sold to schools. Farm-to-school could also spur technology and research to help fruit and vegetable growers in the state become more productive.
A robust state farm-to-school program might also benefit Maryland food processors and farmers who grow commodity crops. An example would be Maryland tomatoes processed within the state into tomato sauce and sold to Maryland schools.
No one is suggesting that Maryland farmers can supply all the fresh fruits and vegetables schools use. We do not have the climate to grow some crops (oranges, for example) that schools want. But many other crops that schools use or could use are already grown commercially in the state and can be harvested in the spring or fall.
In greenhouses or under plastic, the seasons for other crops can be extended. Summer food programs could incorporate a wide diversity of Maryland -grown fruits and vegetables. Increased processing capacity could create jobs in the summer while providing locally grown and prepared products for school children during the winter.
School food service directors indicated they might purchase tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, lettuce, peaches, plums, potatoes, melons, strawberries as well as other products locally.
Many fresh fruits and vegetables can be served either raw or cooked, making them more versatile than some canned or frozen items.
No inspections are required of fresh, raw produce. Processed items have to follow food safety procedures established by the county or state. Food service should follow the same procedures for washing as they use with all fresh produce.
On the farm side, some produce items require immediate cooling after being harvested and many farmers lack this capacity. Farmers need information about what schools want, procurement policy, and in general what they need to do to make ordering from them convenient for food service.
On the school side, limited funds and rapidly rising food costs make it challenging for school food service directors to provide nutritious food on tight budgets. They lack information about how best to connect with farmers and procure farm-fresh foods. Teachers need educational activities and ag/nutrition curricula to implement.
Many schools lack facilities and staff to do extensive food preparation. Distribution issues, quality standards and other issues need to be addressed for both sides to effectively connect in a farm-to-school program.
These barriers can be overcome. School districts continue to need information about buying and using locally grown produce and assistance in expanding food and nutrition programs. Farmers also need information about connecting with local schools. A concerted effort is needed to expand the program and make it an effective tool in the fight to improve children’s health.
If Marylanders are willing to commit state and local resources to maintain this effort, a viable farm-to-school program can be created in Maryland that will greatly benefit both schoolchildren and farmers. Other states have made this commitment. If Maryland continues to embrace a comprehensive farm-to-school program, it will remain in the forefront of innovative efforts to address childhood obesity and improve children’s health while protecting our productive working landscapes.
Adapted with permission from: Chris Kirby is the Oklahoma farm-to-school coordinator. She works to promote the program and connect farmers and schools. She can be reached at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, (405) 522-2106 firstname.lastname@example.org
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