Celebrate National Farm to School Month this October

Communities across the country are emphasizing the importance of farm to school programs, which are in place in more than 42,500 schools across the US. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
Parent and volunteer Sandra Hinman poses with her children Chase and Troy at the Holmes STEM Academy's community garden in Flint, Michigan.

October is National Farm to School Month and communities across the country are celebrating the importance of farm to school programs. These programs, implemented in more than 42,500 schools in the United States, can help improve child nutrition, stimulate local economies, and educate children about where their food comes from and how to make informed food choices.

This year’s theme, One Small Step highlights the simple ways that, students, parents, teachers, nutrition professionals, food producers, and activists can make a difference by learning more about farm field trips, cooking lessons, and taste testing. The National Farm to School Network provides several resources including a toolkit on how to start and develop local farm to school programs, tips on how to ensure the sustainability of a school garden, and an overview of current and pending farm to school-related state and national policies. In addition, National Farm to School Month will highlight the different aspects of farm to school programs by focusing on a new theme every week: education, healthy school meals, farmers and producers, and the next generation.

Farm to school programs have engaged over 23.6 million students and have been shown to provide a multitude of benefits. According to the National Farm to School Network, students in farm to school programs demonstrate increased fruit and vegetable consumption, are more willing to try new foods, and exhibit improved academic outcomes. Christina Plyman, a student volunteer at Boyle County High School’s school garden in Kentucky, says“I’ve seen kids in the cafeteria eat healthier foods because their friends grew it, and they know the garden it was grown in.” Boyle County High School student garden volunteer, Trinity Sinkhorn, also praises the program, explaining “I’m taking on new leadership in our farm to school program and I’m interested in learning new approaches and finding ways to grow our activities.”

In addition to providing learning and leadership opportunities to students, farm to school programs benefit schools and the community. According to areport by UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, participating schools have reported an average increase of 9 percent in school meal participation and have increased local procurement of foods, with some schools sourcing up to 50 percent of their total purchases locally. Meanwhile, local farmers have experienced average income rises and increased market diversification. Upstream Public Health, a public health-focused nonprofit, found that for every US$1 spent on farm to school, US$2.16 is generated in economic activity benefiting the local community.

Farm to school programs may differ from school to school, but all enrich our local communities by changing food purchasing, education, and eating practices at schools and other education sites. Matthew Raiford, Executive Chef of The Farmer & The Larder in Brunswick, Georgia and a sixth generation farmer, addressed the importance of a collective effort to create strong and just local food systems at the 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in June 2016. According to Raiford, “It takes more than a village. It takes villages to build better systems.” Food Tank invites you to join us and the many schools, farms, communities, and organizations around the country in celebrating National Farm to School Month this October.

Below, Food Tank highlights a few outstanding farm to school programs happening around the country.

Abernathy Elementary School, Oregon: Abernathy Elementary’s School Kitchen Garden program provides students with food-based education and the opportunity for hands-on learning at the on-site garden. Oregon may be seeing many more of these programs in the near future thanks to the legislature’s commitment to quadruple the amount of farm to school funding. “The intent was to be able to spread it around and have everybody take advantage of this,” said Rick Sherman of the Oregon Department of Education.

Atlanta Public Schools, Georgia: Last year, Atlanta Public Schools were honored with the Golden Radish Award for doing extraordinary work in farm to school. The district aims to “improve students’ health by offering them more fresh food choices” and “grow their minds with hands-on gardening and food activities.” More than 75 percent of schools conducted taste tests of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the year and 44 schools had edible learning gardens available to students. 

Good Food for Oxford Schools, Mississippi: Good Food for Oxford Schools, an initiative of the Oxford School District in Oxford, Mississippi, aims to improve school meal offerings and provide nutrition education to students and their families. The program has increased the amount of local fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias and implemented nutrition education lessons in the classroom, emphasizing the importance of a healthy, nutritious diet. Outside of the classroom, Good Food for Oxford Schools offers cooking classes and educational grocery shopping trips for families. 

Jamestown Public Schools, North Dakota: Under Food Service Director Shelley Mack, Jamestown Public Schools has increased local food offerings in schools and installed a school garden, with support from grant funding. The district also runs the Century 21 summer kids program. According to Mack, “Century 21 is a summer day care program for students at Washington this year. In the summer there’s like 80-something kids. We planted beds, so they had hands-on experience.”

Malcolm Price Laboratory School, Iowa: Malcolm Price Laboratory School in Cedar Falls, Iowa, debuted Grassroots Café in 2010, a revamped school cafeteria that provides healthier, better-tasting, local food to students. The cafeteria program was created at the urging of students’ parents with support from the school, Northern Iowa Food and Farm Partnership, and grant funding. The school also runs a school garden and a compost system where students volunteer and participate in hands-on learning.

Messalonskee School Gardens, Maine: Messalonskee High School in Oakland, Maine, was recently honored as Maine School Garden Network’s School Garden of the Month. The school is home to a thriving school garden where students in the Agriculture Club take the lead in growing their own food. Other classes, including Plant Biology and Life Skills also utilize the garden for hands-on learning. What’s more, the garden provides herbs for the school cafeteria.

Montrose School District, Colorado: Nutrition Service Director of Montrose School District in Western Slope, Colorado has transformed school menus by adding fruit and salad bars to all elementary schools and using locally grown produce. The district will soon have more options for locally produced food thanks to a grant from the Colorado Farm to School Task Bank and CoBank that helps small and medium-sized farms meet schools’ food-safety requirements. 

Riverside Unified School District, California: Riverside Unified School District serves over 43,400 students and has demonstrated that farm to school practices can be implemented on a large scale. Each of the 29 elementary schools have a Farmers Market Salad Bar, in which 50-100 percent of salad bar items are locally sourced. In addition, nutrition educators conduct monthly taste tests of fruits and vegetables to increase student interest in salad bar offerings. 

Traverse Heights Elementary School, Michigan: Since fall 2015, Traverse Heights Elementary School has partnered with FoodCorps to enhance their food and nutrition curriculum. FoodCorps service members conducted bimonthly visits to the school to teach about healthy food, run cafeteria taste tests of local produce, and guide garden-based learning. The school serves local food with help from the “10 Cents a Meal” grant, which matches school food spending on local foods. 

Washington County Public Schools, Maryland: Washington County Public Schools serves around 12,000 school lunches every day. Over the last five years, schools have diversified their local food offerings, including Asian pears and Bosc pears. Maryland was the first state to have every public school system participate in Homegrown School Lunch, which promotes Maryland agriculture through school food, classroom programs, and farmer-student interactions.

Marisa is a Masters candidate of the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program at Tufts University. In addition to her academics and work with Food Tank, she is involved with the Long Beach Health Department's healthy retail program and nutrition education efforts. Marisa is passionate about food justice, nutrition, and sustainable food policy. Find her on social media: @marzipantsai.

This article first appeared in Food Tank.

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