With Farm Fresh Food Days and school gardens, these Michigan schools are changing the way their students eat, one bite a time!
Once a month, students at Dexter Community Schools see a table spread in their cafeteria that looks more like it belongs at a farmers’ market than a school. Students are drawn to the table by a full spread of green-topped radishes, multicolored cherry tomatoes paired with aromatic basil leaves, oven-roasted asparagus, or spiced potatoes.
Fruits and veggies from local sources are featured each month in a taste test and a week or two later on the menu at all six area schools. As they take a bite of the local delights, Farm to School Program volunteers ask students for their honest opinions:
“Like an apple/potato.”
“I love asparagus!”
Student responses are collected and later shared on the program’s blog. Parents and interested community members can even see videos and charts of students’ responses to the taste tests, which are aptly named “Farm Fresh Food Days.”
Farmers get involved in the taste tests too! In addition to providing asparagus and other products for school lunch, farmer Vicki Zilke, of Zilke Vegetable Farm in Milan, MI has set up a table with lettuce seedlings to show students how their food looks as it is growing. Farmer Jennifer Kangas, of Capella Farm in Ann Arbor, has sold potatoes, turnips, watermelon radishes, and cherry tomatoes to Dexter schools.
“I did a lesson in a 4th grade classroom and brought in all sorts of food from the farm that kids wouldn’t normally get to try and they loved it!” says Jennifer, who is also a parent of three children attending schools in the district.
The student responses provide a sense that students are not only willing to taste new foods, but some even get excited when they see these products featured on the lunch line.
Behind the students’ enthusiasm and willingness to try new things is a community-wide effort to bring the farm to the school, promote healthy decisions, and boost the economic impact schools can have on local farms. The project was started with funding from the Chelsea Area Wellness Foundation, through the 5 Healthy Towns Project. Dexter Food and Nutrition Services, the Dexter Wellness Coalition, the Chelsea Wellness Coalition, and other Washtenaw County area partners have been working to create a sustainable and robust farm to school program since about 2011.
Just a few years into the program, local food procurement efforts have led to monthly features of Michigan fruits and veggies on the school lunch menu and in cafeteria tastings. Three school gardens are engaging students in rich learning activities, and produce from school gardens has been used in classroom nutrition education.
Students enrolled in the Dexter Schools International Baccalaureate Program are completing the requirements for their CAS project (Community, Action, Service) through their own student-run community supported agriculture (CSA) program in the Sullivan Memorial Garden. They gain agricultural, engineering, and entrepreneurial skills, while connecting with community members. In a letter to the students published on the blog, one CSA member shares how the program impacted her family:
“This was the first CSA my family has ever participated in. My purpose of joining the CSA was to try new vegetables/produce that I would not have normally purchased at the grocery store, introduce my picky daughters (ages 4 and 6) to the gardening process in hopes they would be more willing to try different vegetables, learn new recipes to prepare the vegetables for my family, [and] learn how to prepare the vegetables for storing over the winter (freezing). I feel I have met all 4 of my goals! My family has learned a lot this summer.”
Regularly offering locally grown food in school meals and developing garden-based learning projects are major goals of the program, and they are not simple tasks. Farm Fresh Food Days represents years of building relationships with farmers, adapting kitchens to process more fresh food, and “selling” the students on the changes to the menu with tastings, farmer visits, and quality time digging into school gardens.
Farm to School Coordinator Lisa Babe says they’ve done a lot to strengthen relationships with local farmers: “To facilitate communication between farmers and the food service director, we created a calendar of local produce we’d like to have in the meals, and the amounts we would like to purchase.”
School meal planning and crop planning at farms take place months in advance, and Dexter Farm to School is hoping that this method will make it easier for them to find the local food they’re looking for and for farmers to provide it. Additionally, they offer resources on their website for new farmers looking to get involved.
Dexter Food and Nutrition Services sees farm to school as both an educational and marketing opportunity – providing information to students about the local farms that grew their lunch, bringing farmers into the classroom, and taking staff and student field trips to local farms. Through these actions, Dexter is both building enthusiasm for fresh, local food, and meeting instructional needs.
Caitlin Joseph, the program’s former coordinator, says “the challenge is to help kids better understand the connection between the farm and what’s on their plates; to demonstrate that the local food they see at school is actually a product they can find outside of school, and it will help the local economy and local farmers.”
There’s more planned for next year, too: “Everyone wants more fresh fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria,” Babe affirms, “but between the procurement, the pricing, and the seasonality of foods in Michigan, it can be complicated to understand. We’re hoping to help families know more about what is locally available for their children at school as well as for the whole family out in the community. We’re also working to strengthen and sustain farm to school efforts through revisions of our school wellness policy.”
As Dexter Community Schools clearly demonstrate, farm to school affects much more than just lunch trays: by connecting school meals with local growers, it creates new market opportunities for farmers and opens the door for long-lasting, fruitful partnerships. By providing students with opportunities to learn how their food grows, students are more excited to try new foods in the lunch line and at home.
Schools all over the country are working to transform school meal programs through farm to school. Investments in USDA programs like the Farm to School Grant Program are needed in order to sustain these efforts. Members of Congress are at work on reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, the legislation that sets national policy for school meal and child nutrition programs, including farm to school. With this bill, Congress has the opportunity to transform the health of thousands of kids – and the livelihoods of thousands of farmers!
By supporting the Farm to School Act of 2015 and including it in the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization this year, Congress can ensure that MORE schools are able to make every day a fresh food day by bringing local farms to lunch!
Will you join us? Show your support by adding your name to our citizen sign-on letter, and let’s keep farm to school programs like Dexter’s growing strong!
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.