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Kentucky Farmers Plant the Seeds for Farm to School

October 24, 2019

Students visiting Need More Acres farm to see where their school meals come from. Photo credit: Shelley + Portugal

Editor’s Note: This blog post is the second in a multi-part series which highlights the experiences of Farm to School grant recipients and how these grants have impacted their communities around the country.

While a serious topic, healthy school food in Kentucky isn’t taking itself too seriously. Between in-school snacks and visits to local farms, learning about where their food comes from has never been more engaging to students in Kentucky. And Farm to School initiatives in Kentucky are getting innovative when it comes to figuring out what kids want. Community partnerships, clever branding, and taste-tests lend themselves as tools for longevity of Farm to School programs throughout the state. Thanks to the determination of farmers and producers, Kentucky-grown school food is on the rise.

Kentucky Growers use Farm to School Dollars to Give Back

In 2018, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s (KDA) Farm to School Program received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm to School Grant Program to support and expand their work throughout Kentucky to connect youth with local fruits and vegetables and those who grow them. But their project has an innovative twist – it recognizes the critical role producers play in farm to school efforts by providing mini-grants to farmers working to build connections between local schools and farming communities. Providing mini-grants allows farmers to expand the reach of local food that gets to Kentucky students and provide resources that empower producers to partner with Kentucky schools. 

Farmers Michelle and Nathan Howell of Need More Acres Farm in Scottsville, Kentucky are two of these farmer-champions incorporating farm to school into their work as growers. Michelle and Nathan have helped implement farm to school programming in both Bowling Green and Allen County, KY.

In the spring of 2019, they were awarded one of the mini-grants from KDA to support their Summer Food Service Program efforts. The mini-grant allowed them to hire dietitians and graphic designers to design worksheets and handouts that are provided to students along with their meals. Michelle and Nathan supply 100 percent Kentucky Proud lunch boxes to students in Allen County through the Summer Food Service Program, which supplies students with lunches during the summer months when school is the out of session.

In addition to supplying food for the summer programs, Michelle and Nathan also invite all of the students who are a part of the summer feeding program out to their farm to see exactly where their food is being grown.  

“Something that I always think of is that they have a farmer,” said Michelle Howell. “They’ll be able to say, ‘When I was growing up, I had a farmer that grew my food.’ And helping them see the big picture of why the power of their choice to eat a fresh fruit or vegetable makes them healthier, but also helps local farmers and helps the economy.”

Students show off their Kentucky-grown produce during a visit to Need More Acres Farm. Photo credit: Michelle Howell

Community Partnerships Create Sustainable Change in Farm to School Programs

Michelle and Nathan’s main partner in their Summer Food Service Program work is the Allen County School District. They partner directly with Women Infants and Children (WIC) service providers and dietitians that are working alongside them to provide nutrition information for every crop they grow. The dietitians also attend all events and student taste-tests to act as a resource and guide for additional nutrition information. Student taste tests, administered by the Health Department, are conducted for all 7,500 students in Allen County schools. Using produce that is grown by Michelle and Nathan, each student taste tests four different vegetables. Their responses are used to inform the school lunch menus, as well as help Michelle and Nathan develop their crop plan for the coming year. In Bowling Green City Schools, 8 weeks of taste tests are conducted for schools in the district that are 100 percent free lunch. The 1,200 students enrolled in this program have 8 weeks of snacks in the classroom that are purchased from Need More Acres Farm.

100 percent Kentucky Proud lunch boxes for students in Allen County. Photo credit: Michelle Howell

In addition to farming full-time for the past 13 years, Michelle and Nathan both have long-time ties to the world of agriculture and food. Growing up on a tobacco farm in Kentucky, Nathan witnessed firsthand the struggles faced by farm families, as well as the strong sense of community that can exist in rural America. For Michelle, the importance of farm to school hits close to home and is what drives her. 

“I grew up in a food desert and had very limited access to food, and quite often the healthiest food and the most accessibility to food that I had was when I was at school,” said Michelle. “So, when we think about our farm and we think about growing this food, our priority for accessibility for us is that that food is getting into the schools.”

Students eating healthy snacks during the Summer Feeding Program in Allen County Schools. Photo Credit: Shelley + Portugal

When it comes to community partnerships to build stronger farm to school connections, sometimes multiple federal funding sources work together. Need More Acres Farm is also a 2019 recipient of a USDA Specialty Crop Grant that will help them expand Super Snax — a program that also falls under the Summer Feeding Program. Expansion will include initiatives to improve branding, so whenever a student sees the Super Snax logo they know that they are eating something fresh and grown locally. Expansion will also allow them to produce workbooks and learning materials for students to educate them about food and farming.

Michelle Howell posing with school staff and students highlighting the Super Snax program. Photo credit: Michelle Howell

Overcoming Application Barriers so Kentucky Youth Can Thrive

While receiving grants can be of great benefit to the schools and their respective communities, often the grant application process can be a barrier for many. In addition, USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program is highly competitive – meaning there is more need for grant support than funds available. Michelle has experienced this firsthand and expressed how it has impacted their work.

“Grant reporting and applying is incredibly time consuming and tedious,” said Michelle. “It’s something that we’re of course willing to do because we need the money. The uncertainty that stems from going year to year and hoping to get a grant to continue the programs. We always choose to believe that it will work out, and so far it has.”

Building a project like this one can be challenging – Need More Acres Farm has found it can take additional time to communicate with new schools or partners unfamiliar with farm to school and its benefits. Taking a collaborative approach and ensuring everyone is involved and supported in the project helps it succeed.

“One thing that has been really helpful to us is getting other community partners on board and collaborating with you. Like the extension office and the library and the health department has been really huge for us as a partner. A lot of times it’s just the farmer and just the food service administrator trying to figure this out, and so getting into those resources, especially for us in a rural community, they all knew each other and had these working relationships, and I really think that’s why we’ve been successful,” said Michelle.

Students cooking freshly harvested vegetables during a visit to Need More Acres farm. Photo credit: Shelley + Portugal

Next Steps

October is National Farm to School Month, and throughout the month, NSAC will continue to highlight stories like these, which show the myriad ways advocates can benefit from and build support for Farm to School activities.

NSAC and the National Farm to School Network (NFSN)  are leading a campaign to build support for The Farm to School Act of 2019, which would provide an additional $10 million in annual funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program. The bill would also make policy changes that would improve access to the program for Native American communities and prioritize projects that engage beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers.

For a grounding in the history of this work at the federal level, check out our other farm to school blog posts this month, “The Untold History of Federal Farm to School Support and Its Impact on Local Food Research”, and “Farm to school Advocates Kick off Farm to School Month in DC!

Readers can also visit NSAC’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization page or take a look at our most recent Child Nutrition Reauthorization blog to get an update on what Congress is (or isn’t doing) on this issue. To stay tuned to advocacy and engagement opportunities, be sure to check out our Take Action page and sign up for our e-newsletter and Action Alerts emails here.

Categories: Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access

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