Photo: mynameisharsha (Flickr)
Fresh Food And Education
In 2009, the USDA established the Farm to School initiative called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food which works with school districts and local farms to use local produce and meat in school meals. The Farm to School program aims to help school children learn how their meals end up on their lunch trays, and to teach healthier eating habits by providing fresh food.
Another benefit of the program is that it supports local agriculture.
Communication Is Key
Recently the USDA released an evaluation of the 2010 Farm to School program and in it found that there were both successes and set backs.
The program is very popular and has spread quickly. As many as 2,500 programs exist in more than 10,000 schools. Children in these schools benefit from having fresh, healthy food in their cafeterias.
Many people from school officials to shippers to farmers must be involved with the Farm to School program for it to work, and communities that adopted the program in 2010 were excited about the initiative and passionate to address its challenges.
Communities that had clear and effective communication between the schools and the farmers had the most success.
The program created a greater awareness amongst school children as well as school administrators and the community about the food supply chain and increased the credibility and visibility of local farmers.
Because of the complexity of the food supply chain, there were some challenges for the program.
Local farmers were willing to participate in the program, but sometimes they were unable to provide the foods needed because they didn’t have the transportation capabilities to get the food to the schools, or they were not able to provide their produce or meat in the quantities required by a school district.
Most schools do not hold classes in the summer when farmers are harvesting many fruit and vegetables, and without appropriate storage, farmers could not hold the food until the school year. However, farmers have expressed interest in building greenhouses as a way to provide fresh food all year long if additional funding is provided.
School kitchens are not always prepared to deal with so much raw food, especially when it comes to meat. Many school meat items are precooked and then reheated when they arrive at school cafeterias, so not every school has a kitchen that is equipped for handling raw meat.
Farm to School officials are exploring ways to have meat prepared locally before it’s delivered to the school and are looking into standardizing procedures for cooking and storing raw meat.
The biggest concern of the Farm to School program is for food safety. A mistake at any point of the growing, packing, shipping, or preparing process could lead to a potentially dangerous situation.
The study found that school food service directors’ main concern about food safety was that they were not equipped to know whether or not the food they receive was safe. According to the study, no local food safety issues have been reported so far.
School administrators were as equally worried about non-local food providers when it came to food safety. In fact, school food service directors expressed that they had more trust in local food items than non-local.
Regardless, the program is looking to ways that it can improve food safety, including working with state agencies and local universities to test food.
As the program expands it will consider whether or not school districts should require farmers to have the expensive Good Agriculture Practice (GAP) certification. Some local farmers may not be able to afford the certification. The Farm to School program advised that schools and farmers contact state agencies to find reduced-cost or free GAP training or other source of funding.
Even with challenges that will need to be addressed, the Farm to School program has had a successful beginning. Its funding will be expanded this year thanks to the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, so it appears as though school children can look forward to more local food in the coming years.