Eating local: Farm-to-school gaining ground as way to fight childhood obesity and otherwise improve students’ nutrition

By Tara Kaprowy
Kentucky Health News

With the faint hue of green appearing in thousands of gardens and farms, the growing season has officially begun in Kentucky. While most of the resulting produce is destined for store shelves and personal pantries, there is growing demand for it to appear in kitchens that haven’t seen locally-grown fruit and vegetables for decades but are keys to children’s nutrition.

Schools are the newest frontier in sustainable farming, with their collective power not only capable of transforming the agricultural landscape, but also fighting childhood obesity, one of the biggest health crises facing the nation. (Kentucky Department of Agriculture photo: Montgomery County farmer Gayle Arnold picking tomatoes)

This growing trend is called “farm to school,” in which school cafeterias serve food grown by local farmers. Across the state, food-service directors in 78 school districts have made their schools Kentucky Proud institutions, meaning they serve local products in their school lunches.

This map shows that nearly 50 counties had some type of farm-to-school program in place in 2010; more have started.

“It’s a growing movement,” said Tina Garland, coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture‘s Farm-to-School Program. “Producers are being added every day. We’ve got orchards that can turn off their freezers in the fall because the schools buy all of their apples.”

John Cain, state co-chair of Kentucky Action for Healthy Kids, attributed the trend to several factors, including efforts to find viable markets for former tobacco farmers, a concern about food security and the obesity epidemic. “We’re having to revisit where does our food come from and what does the source of our food have to do with our obesity problem,” he said.

This year, 10 school districts will receive $5,000 grants from the Kentucky Department of Public Health‘s Obesity Prevention Program so they can establish farm-to-school programs. Last year, Jackson, Lee and Owsley counties established their own programs using the grants. Owsley Food Service Coordinator Charolette Thompson served locally-grown watermelons and cantaloupes in her cafeterias. “The students noticed the difference in taste and the better quality in the produce,” she said. “They love it.”

In Jackson County, in addition to developing ties with farmers, students grew tomatoes, left,  and canned salsa, which will be used in the school cafeteria. They also made jam, which they sold under the label “Jammin’ Generals.” “Not only did they learn how to grow their own food, they learned how to market it and how to preserve it,” said Elaine Russell, nutrition coordinator for the Obesity Prevention Program. (Cumberland Valley District Health Department photo)

This trend is likely to continue, especially since it now has federal support. On April 26, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established a rule that will let schools give preference to local, unprocessed farm products when they buy for the National School Lunch Program and other USDA programs.

While farm to school is gaining traction, it is not a new concept. Julie Tuttle, food nutrition coordinator at Montgomery County Schools, is one of a handful of food-service directors who have been serving locally-grown produce for several years. “We started using apples in 2006,” she said. “Now we’re up to four producers.” (Kentucky Department of Agriculture photo: Students Macy Tabor and Makayla Donathan at Montgomery County High School)

The latest is Marksbury Farms, where Tuttle is buying beef, chicken and pork. Last week, in honor of the Kentucky Derby, Montgomery County High was one of the first Kentucky schools in decades to serve local meat. The students had the option of either burgoo or hot browns, left. “I had one student who came up to me and said, ‘I just wanted you to know this is the best school lunch I’ve had since I’ve been here,'” Tuttle said. “That’s what it’s all about, getting those comments from students.” (Kentucky Department of Agriculture photo)

Julia Bauscher, director of school and community nutrition services for Jefferson County Public Schools, teamed with Sullivan University to develop recipes, and was able to buy local squash, peppers and zucchini that she and her team processed and froze for year-round use. This year, she is buying local foods from about 12 providers, three of whom have contracts to grow for the schools.

In addition to raising awareness, she’s found farm to school improves the reputation of the school cafeteria in general. “This gives everyone something to feel good about and opens everyone’s eyes a little more about the program,” she said. “And how we really do have to work hard to make this happen.”

Farm-to-school programs have been slow to start in many places because they face logistical, legal and other challenges. Many school districts want their suppliers to carry a $1 million liability insurance policy, which they may not be able to afford, and be certified through the Good Agriculture Practices Program, education they may not be able to get.

Farm to school’s biggest drawback is that it takes more work. Unlike food delivered to schools by huge providers, locally-raised produce may need to be washed and processed, which takes more staff or volunteers.

“The market has evolved a very convenient system,” said Mark Swanson, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky College of Public Health. He said school food-service directors “have one or two providers they can call and they can get what they need. Farm to school gets a lot more complicated. … It takes a really motivated person to tackle that on their own.”

Swanson said that hurdle can be lowered by social connections in rural communities. He spoke of one farmer who was selling her tomatoes to a Wendy’s restaurant. Though she’d had a bad harvest, the restaurant manager was willing to use the product, in part because they went to church together. “He knew that his business arrangement would be cushioned by social ties,” Swanson said.

In Owsley County, ties between the school and farmers have become so strong farmers will now host a farmers market on the grounds of the high school there. “It’s the social connection with farm to school that gives it the most potential,” Swanson said.

Federal procurement guidelines keep schools from paying much of a premium for local products, but “Farmers are pretty uniformly willing to accept a lower price for their produce because of the volume and they can sell it all at once,” rather that waiting for single buyers at a farmers’ market, Swanson said. “It’s a good trade,” he said. “It’s a whole lot easier.”

That was the case for Jeremy Hinton, owner of Hinton’s Orchard and Farm Market, and the schools in LaRue County and nearby Elizabethtown, which buy 1,000 of his apples a week.

“It was a cost savings to them over what they were paying at the time,” Hinton said. “Even when wholesale apples are available for less, they continue to buy our apples because of the quality and supporting locally grown. . . . Probably the biggest compliment we’ve gotten is talking to some cafeteria managers who said they’re seeing more apple cores in the trash bin instead of apples with one or two bites out of them.”

While farm to school is gaining ground in Kentucky, it is more established in the upper Midwest, the Northeast and California. Kelly Crossley, food-service director at Independence School District in Iowa, started her program in 2008. Though she is interested in supporting farmers and shrinking the district’s carbon footprint, Crossley’s main goal is the same as most food-service directors in the program: healthier eating.

“If you can get kids to eat more fruit and vegetables, hopefully those items will replace something more fattening they would have eaten otherwise,” she said. To reinforce the effort, students meet the farmers in the classroom and travel to the farms, and Crossley posts in the cafeteria signs noting where the local foods were grown. Crossley said her staff only casually monitors what students take in the lunch line, not what actually gets eaten, but “The cooks have told me … that they can tell which kids have been exposed because they’re taking more.”

Swanson is doing research in Lee County to see if farm-to-school actually improves children’s nutrition. He will establish a program and photograph trays of food coming off the lunch line and being returned once the students have eaten. “There’s a general assumption that farm-to-school programs work and no one has really studied the effects on nutrition,” he said. “The reason I don’t sell it on the nutritional benefits is we really don’t know.”

While the empirical evidence may be short, the anecdotal evidence is strong. Crossley said she witnessed an unforgettable success late last fall in Iowa.

“Brussels sprouts were the only thing left in the garden,” she said. “The kids went out and actually harvested them off the trunks. We sautéed them, put a little bit of parmesan cheese on them and we passed them out to the kids. I’m telling you, they ate it up … That day, we heard stuff like, ‘I like Brussels sprouts and I didn’t even know it.'”

Bauscher looks forward to the day that happens all over Kentucky. “As more districts become more involved in this,” she said, “we ought to be able to create something that’s really worthwhile, not only for the students, but for the farmers.”

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One Reply to “Eating local: Farm-to-school gaining ground as way to fight childhood obesity and otherwise improve students’ nutrition”

  1. zenmama

    Thanks for this great article!
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