by William McNutt
Registration for the first Farm to School (F2S) conference in Ohio had to be closed a week before 300 participants convened on the Ohio State Campus in mid-March. Secondary school administrators and teachers concerned with proper student nutrition, along with Ohio State extension personnel have been working together for the last 18 months to coordinate attempts to improve school student and faculty involvement in food production, securing prompt delivery and preparation of food from local sourcing in order to assure improved quality and nutrition, while expanding numbers of children fed from low income districts. Debra Eschmeyer, National Food Corps director connected to the F2S program, stated that improved food nutrition for school children could prevent $15 billion annual cost of preventable disease. The program helps young people learn about nutrition, plus instruction in food preparation for healthy living and dining, even cultivation of school gardens for hands-on instruction in growing fresh produce to supplement the processed product.
Despite the fact that an average consumer pays only 15 percent of their income for food (versus half in the early 20th century), too many youngsters from low income families are not properly fed or go to school hungry, with many school districts providing a nourishing breakfast as the only hot meal of the day — in the U.S.,12 million students go to school for breakfast. Granville, Ohio — with one of the first schools to emphasize locally grown foods — saw cafeteria attendance go from 20 percent to 2/3 of their students with the addition of more locally grown food choices. Sandusky schools contracts with five local growers for their produce. Most meat and dairy products come from processors who must pass strict inspection standards. At Ohio State, 30 percent of food prepared on campus must be contracted from local sources by OSU suppliers, including the hamburger at fast food outlets. OSU garden plots, dairy herd and livestock farms — all with inspected facilities — supply a guaranteed market.
Numbers of F2S programs have increased dramatically in the last 20 years and is now over 12,500 nationally. Julie Fox, state leader of F2S, said the main goal is to build a statewide network involving those in attendance, in order for them to go back into their local communities to organize local projects. Some of new resources available include $100,000 in mini-grants from an Ohio Department of Education fund, plus a new Seed to Salad tool kit offered by the state department of health. In keeping with the emphasis on youth nutrition, a salad bar set up was offered at the conference by Whole Foods, allowing a local school to provide a salad bar for one year. Concern about increased obesity in teenagers has sparked much of the emphasis on proper nutrition that has been part of the locally grown fresh food market.
The goal of F2S is to secure a nutritious, high quality diet for children to help overcome the fact that one-third of children in the U.S. are either obese or overweight, that only two percent of them get the recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables each day. To date Food Corp volunteers are in 250 schools in 12 states, with 51,000 children involved. Preliminary reports indicate that eating habits can be changed. Children will eat fruits and vegetables when prepared and presented in attractive ways. Sandusky school cafeteria supervisor Tom Frietas advocates bundling meals with fewer choices, allowing self serve with one hot vegetable and one entrée. Students have eight meal choices each day, with local produce coming from three growers, who in season can supply items such watermelon, sweet corn, cucumbers, honey, fruit and local dairy products. In addition, snack packs go into vending machines and food carts for pick up in off meal times, while calorie counts can be compared on a digital menu board. In Cincinnati, a cooperative handles orders from schools as well as retail grocers and other institutions. Field trips are arranged in both locations for school staff and children to see where their food is coming from. The cooperative can handle variety selection, pool orders, then arrange delivery and invoicing from one central location.
At the F2S inception in 2010, there were no salad bars in Cincinnati schools. Within a year, there were 53, with the help of foundation grants and other contributions. A second hand salad bar came from a local university, one vendor gave a $5,000 grant, former food kiosks became salad bars. Whole Foods gave classes to food staff in various schools, with a travelling salad bar.
As Ohio prepares to launch a unified F2S program with assistance from OSU extension personnel working with school staff and administration, results are expected similar to those already noted in other states. Children in school settings where F2S principles are utilized are making healthier food choices, their academic achievement is up, and average weight has gone down. Teachers also benefit, as their diets and lifestyles see change after they observe the value of integrating F2S information into class curriculums. School cafeteria participation has increased as much as 15 percent, while food service staff noted less wastage, plus new recipes incorporating increased use of fruits and vegetables. Farmer suppliers saw at least 5 percent increase in income from direct sales, along with new local sales opportunities.
Ms. Fox stated the goal of the conference had been achieved by presenting information to all segments involved in carrying out program objectives: food producers, state and local school staff members, plus local leadership who will help achieve the local implementation of Farm to School. The long delayed farm bill of 2012 may finally reinstate programs not funded when the 2008 farm bill was extended, such as the farmers market promotion program — which helped fund programs for local growing and selling — plus hopefully easing current restrictions on selling to schools and providing food stamps for local direct market sales. Also included would be funding for increasing urban agriculture sites, such as school gardens. Federal nutrition programs are already the largest segment of the USDA budget, almost 80 percent is allocated for this purpose; just under 20 percent is provided for commercial agriculture program funding.
by William McNutt