I recently had the privilege of attending the Farm to School Summit in La Crosse, Wisconsin with a great group of health educators, school food service workers and more from Transform Rock County. I am really glad to have had the opportunity to see the exciting progress that folks in the La Crosse area have made with bringing fresh, local food into their school lunches. Most of all, I am feeling inspired to make a difference here in Rock County. Following the Summit, I have a better idea of what it takes for farm to school success and the role that a farmers market manager and environmental educator might play in creating that success. Most of all, I realize the importance of not just feeding better food to our children in school but also giving kids the skills to choose and prepare nutritious foods at home.
As with any summit or conference, I’ve found that some of the most valuable information comes out in the simple discussions with your peers that occur over meals or while traveling. Following our first afternoon of farm tours and learning about distribution networks, scratch cooking and school gardens, those of us from Rock County shared a meal at a local restaurant. There I got to hear about the new school breakfast program. From comments about the sugar content of breakfast bars to the thought that if we feed them breakfast, pretty soon we’ll also be feeding them supper and tucking them into bed, it was a lively and informative discussion where I mostly got to just listen and learn. What are we teaching our kids with the new breakfast programs? The programs are an unfortunate necessity for children who, for whatever reason, are not getting a nutritious breakfast before school. Serving breakfast in school improves both behavior and performance for many students. Still, is this program going to create a whole generation of adults who skip breakfast at home and expect to grab something quick at work or on the way to work every day?
Education as Part of Farm to School
Our previous night’s discussion about school breakfasts made me really think hard as I went into the second day of the Summit. On this jam-packed day, I pursued the education track in several break-out sessions. I learned about using school gardens and agriculture classes to educate students and supply the lunch room. I learned about outreach efforts in schools that help kids develop an interest in trying new fruits and vegetables. My favorite was the presentation about an Iron Chef-style competition called the Harvest Challenge, that one school district uses to get students involved with creating new lunch menus while raising money for the Farm to School program. The students work with local chefs and the school food service to design a lunch menu that features local food and stays within the 92 cent per meal limit that schools allocate for lunches. 92 Cents!
One of the biggest challenges to the competition and to farm to school in general is the low price that a public school budgets per student lunch. This cost is based on sourcing cheap commodities through the federal government. Indeed, the original school lunch act was founded partly on the desire to feed children these surplus commodities.
“It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.” -P L. 396 -79th Congress, June 4, 1946, 60 Stat. 231
Other obstacles to farm to school initiatives include lack of cooking facilities and recipes to cook real food from scratch and lack of local distribution. As someone who has implemented a farm to school program in a small private school, I have to add student receptiveness to new foods as an additional obstacle. The most successful farm to school programs have an educational component that encourages kids to try new, healthy foods and make better choices. The best education involves not just the students and teachers in the classroom but also the parents at home.
Fortunately there are many great educational resources that have already been developed to complement the farm to school movement. One of the features of the Summit, which some schools in Rock County will be implementing soon, is Harvest of the Month. Harvest of the Month focuses on one or more fresh fruits and vegetables every month. Students learn facts about the featured produce items and experiment with and taste the food in the classroom. Newsletters for parents continue the education at home with recipes and suggestions for further reading and research. California Harvest of the Month has all of their materials available online. You may use their ideas and choose produce that is in season for your own region. Check with the local farm to school resources in your state to find out if they have already developed local versions of these hand-outs. Transform Rock County was ready to develop our own when we discovered that Wood County already has some.
As a former private school cook and food educator, I was especially pleased to find The Whole Plate, a high school curriculum that integrates real food cooking with curriculum designed to get kids thinking about their food choices as they impact their own health and the health of the world. It is designed to empower high school students with the shopping and cooking skills they will need as they go off to college or into the world of work. Very importantly, they learn how to cook and eat within a limited budget. These are skills that many kids do not learn at home in our culture of fast food and working families. The curriculum comes with a three day training in Viroqua, WI for teachers and food service professionals.
With education and student involvement, farm to school can improve meal participation and nutrition both during the school day and at home. Do we want to simply feed kids better food at school or do we want to empower them to make better choices outside of school as well? I know that my vote is to educate. Through farm to school education, we have an opportunity to give kids the skills they need to make healthy choices and cook nourishing foods for themselves for life. The best part of farm to school education is that you can start today. Even if your school is not ready to start sourcing and preparing local foods on a large scale, you can start educating kids about choosing local food. You can take field trips to local farms and the local co-op or farmers market. You can participate in community garden projects or start your own. You can recruit local chefs to visit the classroom with recipes and samples. Start where you are, but start today. Your children will thank you tomorrow.