August 14, 2015
“A vital part of our mission involves educating future consumers about the many benefits of locally grown food. [We have been] designing curriculum for 3rd and 4th grade classes, bringing local farmers into classrooms, and providing students with “market bucks” to encourage farmers market purchasing. It’s a start, but this is just the beginning for Lehigh Valley Farm to School.” – Lynn Prior, Buy Fresh Buy Local of Greater Lehigh Valley
Integrating Local Food into Classroom and Cafeterias
Farm to school got its start in the Lehigh Valley of northeastern Pennsylvania from an observation: in a region with many local farms, a free summer lunch program for children was able to offer only two vegetables: slices of tomato and lettuce on pre-prepared sandwiches.
As an organization with a mission to support the local food economy, including the issues of food access, consumer education and local development, the Lehigh Valley Chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local (BFBFLGLV) saw this as an opportunity to build new relationships between local farmers and schools and improve children’s access to fresh, healthy food in the region.
It started with relationships: the organization began making connections with farmers markets, school administrators and community activists. Farmers and artisans were invited to classrooms to give presentations on their profession and bring fresh food samples for the children to taste. From there, they expanded to provide classroom curriculum for teachers that educates students about the many benefits of choosing locally grown foods, and to partner with more schools.
Although BFBFLGLV achieved initial success with these farm to school efforts, including increased food system education and community awareness, the organization hit a plateau. Lynn Prior, Director of BFBFLGLV said, “The teachers and farmers loved the educational programs but […] it really wasn’t having an impact on the schools’ purchase of local food.”
BFBFLGLV and local schools are ready to take the next step and create a bigger impact on the local economy: they want to begin helping schools purchase healthy, local food items for their cafeterias. Unfortunately, the pathway to local procurement can be logistically challenging and costly. Prior has applied for a USDA Farm to School Grant to kick-start their efforts.
Building Aquaponics into Biology Lessons
Meanwhile, just a few hours away in State College, PA, Megan Schaper is the Food Director for State College School District, a school district that is already providing locally sourced fresh food in school cafeterias. No pun intended, Schaper explains the wide diversity of farm to school programs in her district as a product of their “organic” development. Each school features programs and food items based on the desires and capabilities of their respective location. Schaper does her best to cater to each school – whether that means working with teachers to incorporate produce from the school’s community garden or sourcing a local “produce of the month” to accommodate a specific curriculum.
One of the schools Schaper coordinates with is State College High School, where biology teacher Jack Lyke complements farm to school efforts through the use of student-built and operated aquaponics systems. Lyke uses the systems to engage students and to highlight the biological cycles involved in food production. At the end of the 2015 school year, he did a taste test to compare store-bought products versus local and fresh products that the students had grown themselves, including tilapia, lettuce and other leafy greens.
“It started out very much just for having fun and connecting in the classroom, but as I thought more deeply about it, I realized that this is sustainable agriculture, this is fresh farm food, this is healthy nutrition. I truly believe if they grow it they’ll eat it and that’s what they did,” Lyke says.
Lyke and Schaper have spoken about the possibility of expanding his aquaponics work to provide fresh produce for the cafeteria, in addition to their hopes for putting more food from local farms onto kids’ plates. However, the logistics can be challenging. Schaper said:
“The issue with the local opportunities is that there are many small sized producers. They don’t have the processing equipment needed to provide us with ready to use products. Also, there’s an increased cleaning time. I have to hire more staff to do the prep work. All of these tasks require funding and that’s where the USDA grants become vital.”
Like BFBFLGLV, Schaper has applied for a USDA Farm to School grant to help her region’s schools solve those logistics puzzles and use more fantastic local food in their meals year-round.
Additional Support for Farm to School Programs Needed
These Pennsylvania stories exemplify the efforts of farm to school advocates across the country who are hoping to bring the benefits of farm to school programs to their communities! Investments in USDA programs like the Farm to School Grant Program are needed in order to sustain these efforts.
Members of Congress are currently at work reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act (CNA), the legislation that sets national policy for school meal and child nutrition programs, including farm to school. NSAC has worked with our Congressional champions on the hill to introduce a bipartisan piece of legislation, the Farm to School Act of 2015, which would boost funding for the Farm to School Grant Program, and expand the program to better meet the needs of summer school programs, tribal communities, and support opportunities for beginning farmers.
By supporting the Farm to School Act of 2015 and including it in the CNA reauthorization this year, Congress has the opportunity to transform the health of thousands of kids – and the livelihoods of thousands of farmers!
Will you join us? Show your support by adding your name to our citizen sign-on letter, and help make sure schools and farmers in Pennsylvania and across the country can launch – and expand – their farm to school efforts!
The National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.
Categories: Local & Regional Food Systems