by Amber A. Erickson Gabbey
Farm to school programs have the potential to help sustain the health of our children, the viability of our farms, and the growth of our local economies. Beyond the short-term benefits, farm to school programs teach healthy eating, involve kids in the growing process through gardens, and provide resources to youth and their families to continue the trend of healthy eating, including recipes, cooking classes, and newsletters.
About Farm to School
Nearly 10,000 schools nationwide participate in a farm to school program where they receive at least some of their product from local farmers. The National Farm to School Network began in 2007 to help coordinate programs at the national level and to provide a framework and resources to assist the local programs.
Each farm to school program operates a little differently, depending on geographic location, community involvement, resources, and prevalence of nearby farmers. “Each program is unique,” says Anupama Joshi, the executive director and co-founder of the National Farm to School Network. New or small programs may only have one food locally sourced; developed programs could have as much as 70 percent of their food from local farmers. Many programs fall somewhere in between. “It’s an evolving process,” says Joshi. Farm to school can mean any number of things from serving local food in the cafeteria to school gardens and farm field trips.
Although each program functions differently, the National Farm to School Network suggests four components: cafeteria food procurement, classroom or educational opportunities, community involvement, and school gardens. For the programs to be successful, students, staff, parents, farmers, and the community must feel a sense of engagement and interaction in the process. Farm to school is meant to be a change agent — within schools, at home, and in the community. As such, the national network encourages schools to purchase not only from local producers, but local producers with sustainable practices.
While research around farm to school programs is in its infancy, a 2011 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that farm to school programs increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and knowledge about farms and healthy eating. Key outcomes were that in a farm to school program, students were instigating changes at home. They were asking for healthier foods and for more exercise. In addition, school personnel in farm to school programs are beginning to change their behaviors as well to further act as role models for students. Finally, the local economies in farm to school areas benefit greatly, with more money staying in the local area. In some cases, employment also increased. Who’s Doing It Around Eau Claire?
Wisconsin currently has around 102 schools with farm to school programs. A common concern is the winters, especially because school isn’t in session during the height of the growing season. Many schools utilize fall root vegetables, squashes, and hearty greens when they are available. Another option is to buy fresh produce in bulk during the growing season, when costs are low and production is high. Cafeteria staff then work to freeze or pre-cook as many items as possible.
Closer to home, there are several schools around Eau Claire participating in farm to school programs. The challenge is in knowing exactly which schools. The National Farm to School Network lists a small sample of schools, but most are not listed, making it challenging to know for sure. The best way to see if your school participates is to go to the school website and check out the nutrition services tabs to see if they participate.
One local example of a successful farm to school program, the Coulee Region Farm2School, serves students in the public school districts in La Crosse County, the districts in Holmen and Onalaska, West Salem Elementary, Bangor Elementary, and the La Crescent-Hokah schools in La Crescent, Minnesota. The program collaborates with the La Crosse County Health Department. More information can be found at www.getactivelacrosse.org/eat-healthy/farm2school/. Also, Wood County Farm2School serves students in all six public school districts in Wood County, including Marshfield and Pittsville. More information can be found at http://getactive.co.wood.wi.us/GetActiveYouth/FarmtoSchool.aspx.
How Farm to School Programs Work
Every farm to school program runs a little differently based on location, size, and need. Joni Ralph is the supervisor of school nutrition at the School District of La Crosse, where nearly 1,400 students experience farm to school products per month. The farm to school program in the district includes not only local fruits, vegetables, and dairy served in the cafeteria, but also a newsletter, recipes, nutrition education, cooking classes, and taste testings. All of this stuff, especially the education piece, is necessary to change behaviors in the whole family, says Ralph.
The La Crosse School District serves 10 to15 percent local produce, including beans, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, kale, cabbage, and leeks. Some processing is done prior to delivery and other work is done in-house. The nutrition team works to try new techniques and prepare as much ahead of time as possible. Although the location drives what the school serves and when, Ralph doesn’t see many limitations of a farm to school program in Wisconsin. One of the keys to their success, according to Ralph, is their partnerships with local farms and the county health department.
The farm to school program in La Crosse is four years old, meaning the staff have worked through the initial challenges and now have a process in place. Early challenges for the program included food safety standards, processing, transporting, lack of consistency of deliveries, and lack of uniformity of the produce. To ensure enough food comes from the farms, they place orders well in advance and experience helps them know how much they are going to need.
For people considering a farm to school program, Ralph suggests starting small, even with one food item at a time to learn the system and work through challenges. She also suggests taking advantage of the resources available, from the state, USDA, and farm to school network. In the La Crosse district, grants obtained through the county health department have helped fund the program startup costs and offset the cost of higher food prices. Without funding, many schools won’t have the resources to start and maintain a program.
Despite the potential challenges and costs, farm to school programs are beneficial to kids and their families. It’s one thing to serve local food to kids, says Ralph, and a whole other thing to get kids excited about food and create behavior change. And not only for just the kids, the change impacts the whole family.
Bringing Farm-to-School Programs To Your Area
If you are interested in farm to school options for your school, Joshi recommends the following steps:
• Find out what is happening currently. Talk with cafeteria staff and school administrators to find out if something is already set up or if there is room for other options. • Engage parents and school staff and administrators. Start conversations and brainstorm ideas about school gardens, changes in curriculum, cafeteria options, and other ways to build relationships between the school, farmers, and community. Consider any potential startup costs, such as equipment and staffing. Dream big, but also think about short-term goals. • Contact state representatives through the National Farm to School Network. Utilize their resources, understand what is working in nearby schools, and begin discussions with interested farmers. For Wisconsin, check out the downloadable Farm to School Toolkits at www.cias.wisc.edu/toolkits/. Here you can learn the basics of starting a farm to school program as a school food service employee or as a farmer. • Generate interest. The motivation to create change must come from those who will be executing the changes. Figure out how to get support from the farmers and/or school staff. • Do the business. Once there is interest and momentum, you’ll have to do the business portion, with meetings, contracts, and schedules.