Farm to School
Connecting the classroom, cafeteria, and community to the local agricultural economy has proven to be a winning proposition for all involved.
by Olivia Sielaff & Photos by Remsberg Photographs
Within Maryland’s 24 school districts, there are close to 810,000 children in 1,334 schools. That equates to 24 million cafeteria breakfasts and 70 million lunches served each school year. Considering government dietary regulations, strict budgets, and high volume, schools have to find the best way to serve cost-effective, healthy, fresh meals to their students.
With the USDA’s Farm to School program, Maryland schools have been meeting those standards, and then some. In fact, Maryland was the first state in the country that had all of its school districts adopt the Farm to School program.
The Dish On Farm To School
Farm to School is a nationwide program that aims to bring locally produced foods into school cafeterias. “The goal…is to utilize the bounty of agriculture that the local region provides and to put it into the hands of the students,” says Jeffrey Proulx, supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services and the Farm to School director for Washington County schools.
The program involves educational opportunities for students and the integration of food-related activities into the classroom. It also includes the participation of producers, farmers, processors, manufacturers, and distributors in the food industry.
Jane Lawton, a former Maryland legislator, was a big proponent of bolstering the Farm to School program in Maryland since its inception in 2008. She initiated the Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week that takes place in schools every September. During this week, efforts are focused on serving as much local product as possible.
Throughout the rest of the year, the Farm to School program stays strong, ensuring students have the best from local producers. Not only does this include the typical fruits and vegetables, but also proteins, eggs, dairy, beef, and poultry.
The term “local” is not nationally defined, but is addressed on the state level. For Washington County schools, “local” refers to food that’s sourced within a 50-to 100-mile radius of the county. A number of factors play into determining the local aspect of a food source — the weather, different types of food available in the region, and the time of year.
To make the most of the fresh and seasonal factors of local foods, some schools have experimented with making their own dishes — like marinara sauce from fresh corn and tomatoes — and freezing them until needed during the school year. Jeffrey says it’s a technique found at home, just done on a larger scale for cafeteria-sized crowds.
Also, advances in farming technologies allow schools to purchase foods year-round, such as hydroponically grown green bib lettuce from Martinsburg, W.Va, or apples from Rinehart Orchards in Smithsburg that have been kept in cold storage. JD Rinehart, owner of Rinehart Orchards, is able to offer the schools a continuous, fresh supply of apples from August through June. “The great thing about a fresh piece of fruit is it’s packed and delivered to the school within a couple of days,” he says.
The Benefit For Farmers
JD has been participating in the Farm to School program for five years and supplies all the apples served in every school in Washington County — delivering approximately 12,000 apples per week. There were many aspects of Farm to School that attracted JD as a farmer, but it was mainly the fact that he could keep his produce local. “I always thought it was kinda backwards to have fruit from Washington state … when we grow some of the finest fruits in Washington County here,” he says. As opposed to shipping oversees, JD feels better about delivering his produce to local places and people he knows, including his own children who attend school in Washington County. The carbon footprint remains low too, because JD ships apples 15 miles instead of 15,000 miles. The farthest school JD has to deliver to is in Clear Spring, about 20 miles from his orchard. “It’s picked here and it stays here,” he says.
Because school systems provide a good, consistent market for farmers, it bolsters their business plans and encourages them to keep their product local, explains Karen Fedor, the senior agricultural marketing specialist for the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Farm to School manager. To JD, the main goal is for kids to have local fruit, so Farm to School has been the perfect fit. “It just makes sense,” he says. “I’m proud I supply fruit to the local schools.”
The process of Farm to School benefits the local economy, too. Jeffrey explains that $4 million is spent each year on procuring local food for school cafeterias in Washington County. Also, results from the Farm to School 2011–2012 Census show that Maryland school districts overall invested more than $9 million in their communities. The program starts with a better product that in turn reduces the cost of food, and generates incremental incomes in the community to increase jobs and buying power, Jeffrey says.
Also, because the products are local, less time and money is spent on shipping, packaging, and storage costs. For farmers like JD, they can generate income by delivering directly to the schools. In turn, it all supports local business and the community. “That’s very important,” says JD.
Food Is Educational
While there’s no standardized curriculum with Farm to School, the program still connects students to local farms. Through various educational initiatives in the classroom, students learn about the agriculture industry and the process it takes to get food from farms to their meal trays. “We want to help them to understand that food doesn’t just come from markets. That it truly comes from a farm and it has to be grown, has to be cultivated, has to be cared for,” Jeffrey says.
Additionally, environmental literacy standards in schools encourage students to learn outside the classroom. For instance, 22 Maryland schools have their own school gardens. And many schools arrange farm visits for their students, and host holiday taste tests of locally produced food. Karen says this educational aspect will only continue to grow, especially with the incorporation of agricultural science and more school gardens.
Making the Connection
Farm to School is a win-win all around, making the most of local resources and making local connections. “We’re always working to make the connection from the cafeteria to the classroom to the community,” says Karen. Farmers and distributors are benefitting from local business, money is put back into the local economy, and students are eating healthier foods and being educated on agriculture. “It’s like a feel-good story,” Jeffrey says.