Thursday, October 22, 2015

Nationally and statewide, farm-to-school program is a success

With approximately 80 Kentucky school districts participating in the Farm to School program, many of them are finding special ways to celebrate National Farm to School Month, with much to celebrate, as a preliminary U.S. Department of Agricuture report finds that schools that participate in Farm to School programs show an increase in the number of school meals sold, an increase in the consumption of healthier foods and decreases in plate waste.

“By investing in Farm to School not only will the next generation be healthier but they will be more informed consumers who value the farmer and support their local food system, not as a novelty but as a way of life," Tina Garland, procedures division coordinator for the Kentucky Farm to School program, said in a telephone interview.

The Jefferson County Public Schools are celebrating National Farm to School Month with its cafeterias serving a menu full of locally grown food at district elementary, middle and high schools on Oct. 23 and 24, Ja'nel Johnson reports for WFPL Radio.

JCPS began its farm-to-school initiative about eight years ago with apples from a farm in Indiana, but has since grown to include seven local farmers in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee, Johnson reports.

The district's goal is for 10 percent of its produce to be locally grown, Dan Ellnor, manager of the Nutrition Service Center at JCPS, told Johnson, explaining that because they serve 112,000 meals a day, it is difficult to incorporate locally grown produce into every meal.

"Last year, 3 percent of the district’s produce came from local farmers, and JCPS spent $124,000 on local produce. So far this year, $131,000 has been spent on local foods," Johnson writes.

Ellnor told Johnson that this program helps teach students where their food comes from, which is part of the program's mission.

“There are kids, honestly, who don’t know that ketchup comes from a tomato,” he said.

More schools than ever are participating

Although the farm-to-school initiative has been around for many years, the national Farm to School Grant Program was created more recently through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to help eligible schools implement programs to improve their access to local foods. To date, the grant program has funded 221 farm to school projects, totaling $15.1 million, according to its website.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has been the recipient of a USDA Farm to School support service grants, which allowed them to re-grant 11, $5,000 mini-grants across the state to either help develop new farm-to-school programs or to enhance existing programs, according to Garland.

"Farm to school is one of many tactics and resources that USDA makes available to help schools successfully serve healthier meals to kids," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release. "Farm to school partnerships have a proven track record of encouraging kids to try, like and eat more healthy foods and creating new market opportunities for the farmers that grow them."

Preliminary results from from USDA's Farm to School census found that 17 percent of school districts that participate have reduced plate waste; 28 percent are more accepting of healthier school meals; 17 percent have increased participation in school meals; 21 percent have lowered the school meal program costs; and 39 percent have more support from parents and their community for healthier school meals.

The preliminary report also found that since the inception of the grant program two years ago, there has been a 55 percent increase in the local purchase of foods, to $598.4 million in 2013-14 from $385.8 million in 2011-12.

JCPS's goals of increasing its share of locally grown produce to 10 percent fits with the preliminary census findings that found almost half of its respondents said they planned to increase their local food purchases in the coming years.

Nationwide, more than 42,000 schools have farm-to-schools programs,according to the release.

According to the latest official data, in 2011-12 Kentucky schools spent $1.6 million on local foods, which involved 60 school districts and approximately 702 schools, according to Garland. To date, Garland said this number has increased to approximately 80 school districts and over 200 farmers participating in the Kentucky Farm to School program.

Kentucky was also one of three states to receive a National Farm to School Network Seed Change pilot grant, made possible through a generous donation from the Walmart Foundation, that allowed them to distribute 20, $5,000 mini-grants across the state to create or support Farm to School programs, according to Garland, noting that this is a different program than the Farm to School Grant Program.

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