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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011 03:32 pm

Nourishing the nation, one tray at a time

The growing farm to school food movement


It’s in all 50 states. In thousands of school districts. It’s growing by leaps and bounds. And now it’s been endorsed and getting support from the federal government and some state and local governments.

Schoolchildren are eating fresh food from local farms for school lunches and breakfasts.

 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack explained: “The vision is, he [President Obama] wants more nutritious food in schools. In a perfect world, everything that was sold, everything that was purchased and consumed, would be local, so the economy would receive the benefit of that. One thing we can do is work on strategies to make that happen. It can be a grant program, loan programs, it can be technical assistance.”

 There’s been lots of talk lately about the need for children to eat more healthy food and less junk food or highly processed food, with their empty calories and often dubious ingredients. And with good reason. In the last 10 years alone, obesity rates among young children have doubled and have tripled in adolescents. One of every three children born in 2000 will become a diabetic. Statistics are even worse for African-American or Hispanic kids – half of them can expect to develop diabetes. Unless something changes – and changes soon – American children today will almost certainly have a shorter life expectancy than their parents – the first time that’s happened in more than 200 years.

Even if you’re aware of and concerned about child nutrition and eating habits, you may wonder why having them eat local healthy food should be a part of the picture. After all, lots – in fact, virtually all – the fresh produce in groceries comes from far away.

One of the things most frequently heard when talking about the Farm to School movement (often referred to as F2S) is that it’s a big win-win. Many farmers struggle to make a living from their land. The farmer’s share of every American food dollar has dropped from 41 cents in 1950 to just 19 cents today. Three hundred and thirty farmers leave their farms each week; the average age of those still farming is 57. America now has more prisoners than farmers.

School food programs are estimated to spend more than $10 billion a year – a potentially lucrative market for family farmers. If they could sell to local schools, even at a price that competes favorably with what schools spend on processed foods, local farmers could potentially keep a larger share of that food dollar.

Eating food from local family farms is good for the environment and even has the oft-touted advantage of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Industrial agriculture farming methods use vast amounts of fossil fuel. So does distributing food. In America, food items typically travel 1,500 to 2,400 miles from farm to plate. Head lettuce from California takes 36 times more fuel energy to get to New York than the caloric energy it provides.

But what about the children? According to a report produced by a trio of organizations, National Farm to School Network, Community Food Security Coalition, and School Food Focus, kids benefit in a variety of ways when their school meals include local food:

“In addition to supplying nourishing, locally grown food in the cafeteria or classrooms, farm to school programs often also offer nutrition and agriculture education through taste tests, school gardens, composting programs and farm tours. Such experiences help children understand where their food comes from and how their food choices affect their bodies, the environment, and their communities at large.”

Both the food itself and the experiential education surrounding it are equally essential to the success of farm to school programs in changing eating habits for the better. When schools tout the benefit of eating produce but don’t offer it in their meals, students are being taught one thing but shown another. Schools need to give students a consistent message, reinforced through hands-on experiences, such as growing food in a school garden, visiting a farmers market, tasting new products, and developing cooking skills that will serve them their whole lives. These linkages give students vivid and lasting impressions of the delights of growing and eating fresh-picked produce, and help them understand where food comes from and how it is grown – knowledge that’s been shown to drive better dietary choices.”

The challenges involved in moving schools towards locally produced healthy foods are many and varied. Many districts have restrictive procurement rules, such as one in Chicago that prevented children from eating vegetables they’d grown in their school garden; only food from contracted food distributors was permitted. Seasonality is an issue in states like Illinois, unlike, say, California and Florida. Some school administrators and food service directors are enthusiastic, others dismissive or even downright hostile.

But none of the organizations, individuals, or government officials committed to moving school meals towards including local healthy food is advocating some sort of overarching, big-government mandate that would foist drastic unworkable changes on schools. Rather, they’re reaching out to increase public and school awareness of the advantages, and offering assistance and facilitation to interested parents and schools.

As Julia Govis, state leader of Illinois’ Farm to School Network, says:

 “Farm to school programs should and need to be specifically implemented by members within individual communities. The National Farm to School Network does not ‘prescribe a method’ or dictate from top down what individual farm to school programs should look like. We are here to provide as many resources, tools/trainings and assistance to as many people as possible, so that Illinois communities can implement programs that will best suit their local needs. That being said, it is important to acknowledge that none of us can achieve complete success working alone. It will take both teamwork as well as individual efforts to increase the number of successful farm to school programs throughout Illinois.”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com

Springfield hosts Farm to School Summit

In Springfield, on Saturday, Nov. 5, parents, teachers, farmers, food service professionals, school administrators and anyone interested in what’s happening and what needs to happen to bring fresh local food into our own local schools will be able to participate in a Sangamon Area Farm to School Summit, to be held at the Trutter Center at Lincoln Land Community College from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The summit is presented by the Springfield Area Local Food Task Force, a group of individuals and representatives from several area organizations who have been planning this event for more than a year.

Topics that will be discussed and speakers/panel participants include:

Harvesting Local Procurement

  • Lindsay Blough, Illinois State Board of Education – nutrition programs principal consultant

How Parents Can Be Drivers in Farm to School Programs

  • Julia Govis

Sowing the Seeds of Change: The Link between Nutrition and Local Food

  • Kemia Sarraf, M.D., M.P.H. genH founder/president, Springfield
  • Leila Hosseinali, second grade teacher, Hazel Dell Elementary School
  • Farm to School 101
  • Moderator: Kimberly Luz, education and outreach manager, St. John’s Hospital, Springfield
  • Micheline Piekarski, MSM, SNS, food service director at Oak Park & River Forest High Schools
  • Sandy Noel, MA, National Association for Sport and Physical Education Teacher of the Year and Illinois Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year
  • Julia Govis

Growing in the School Garden

  • Julie Bates, Green Center manager, Lincoln Land Community College
  • Latha Pandrangi, Ph.D., genH Nutrition Action Team Leader

Jumpstarting Illinois Farm to School Efforts: What’s Next?

  • Moderator: Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, extension educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms, University of Illinois Extension

Registration for the Sangamon Area Farm To School Summit can be made by visiting the Illinois Stewardship Alliance website, www.ilstewards.org, or calling their office at 528-1563. The registration cost is $15 and includes lunch that features local foods.

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