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Farmers can help teach kids about healthy eating and where their food comes from through farm-to-school programs.
This month, farmers and schools across the U.S. are celebrating the first National Farm to School Month, thanks to a resolution approved by Congress in November 2010. Farm-to-school programs connect K-12 schools with local farms to provide farm-fresh foods for school meals. These programs not only aim to improve child nutrition and provide health and nutrition education, they also help support local farmers by giving them another marketing outlet.
As public interest in food systems has grown, so has farmer interest in participating in farm-to-school programs. Minnesota, for example, has seen a huge response in farm-to-school participation from both school districts and farmers. The number of school districts sourcing their produce from area farms increased by 113 districts between 2006 and 2010, according to the state’s Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. An IATP survey of 67 small- to medium-scale farm in Minnesota also demonstrated a strong farmer interest in selling to schools.
Other states across the country are continuing to see interest in forging a connection between farmers and schools, as well. Oklahoma Farm to School, run by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, has helped connect more than 60 school districts with farmers that source melons, cucumbers and squash. It also sponsors a number of educational activities, including taste tests, to teach kids where their food comes from.
Farmers might think getting involved in a farm-to-school program is a huge undertaking, but resources, including funding opportunities and information on how to get started, are available through the National Farm to School Network. According to Chris Kirby, representative of Oklahoma Farm to School, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s not one correct way to make a farm-to-school relationship work.
“We have schools that purchase produce through a statewide program that has a couple of growers that allocate production specifically to the program and their produce is shipped through partnering distributors,” Kirby says. “We have schools that purchase directly from a local grower in their area. There is a school that purchased a cow from a local rancher and had all of the meat processed into hamburger, and it was cost-effective for them.”
Farmers considering the possibility of farm-to-school marketing can also keep these tips from farm-to-school programs in mind:
- Make the price right. “It’s important to build a relationship with your local school, and also understand the school’s need for affordable produce and products,” Kirby says.
- Make yourself known. “Get out and visit area schools and community centers,” says Wendy Peters Moschetti, schools and community coordinator for Colorado Farm to School. “Welcome folks on your farm with tours and open houses and farm stands. Talk about your mission. Work with area extension and public-health agencies to address food-safety questions and work closely with your agriculture department to make sure you are using all available marketing tools.”
- Don’t assume your farm is too small. “It really doesn’t take a large grower to accommodate farm to school in Oklahoma,” Kirby says. “We have 530 school districts that range from 150 students to over 40,000 students and all sizes in between, which offers opportunity to all sizes of growers. For a school to serve 150 3/8-cup servings of yellow squash, they would only need 15 pounds of squash.”
- Grow for kids’ tastes. “The students love the locally grown fresh watermelon and cantaloupe, which they get to enjoy in August when school is back in session,” says Kirby. “The better the produce tastes, the more they like.”
- If you don’t grow enough produce, find other ways to contribute. “Talk about the importance of [farm-to-school] programs,” Peters Moschetti says. “Contribute to school-based CSAs or school fundraisers. Help out at school gardens or farms.”