Whether you call it farm-to-fork, farm-to-table, or farm-to-school, the goals are the same — get more locally grown foods into school cafeterias so that students have access to high quality, fresh fruits, vegetables and other products.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 established a Farm to School Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This program was created to help public school systems make local foods part of their students’ daily diets. In 2013, the USDA conducted the first nationwide Farm to School (FTS) Census to establish goals and increase local food availability. In 2015, a second census was held to measure progress.
Robert Gorman, FTS Regional Leader for the USDA, assists the program and menu planning for the Mountain Plains region, which includes Missouri in addition to Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming. Gorman said in the 2012-2013 school year, the program made progress compared to previous years, as 40,328 schools bought local products.
In addition to keeping track of the program’s success, the USDA also assists with resources and guidance. According to the Missouri FTS website, at least 78 pre-K to college school districts, Columbia Public School (CPS) district included, now serve locally grown produce, fruit and other products in their cafeterias.
The idea of incorporating locally grown fruits and vegetables into school lunches crossed Laina Fullum’s mind when she worked for Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“I had a farmer call me and ask why it was [that] his local schools could not purchase from him,” Fullum said. In 2006, she didn’t have an answer for that farmer.
Fullum researched for more information about FTS. She contacted other states to gain insight on the Farm to School initiative. She attended FTS seminars to learn about how to have a successful program in Columbia.
In 2007, Fullum brought the Farm to School idea to Columbia Public Schools and began implementing the program in 2009.
“Not only was it a way to get students to eat more fruits and vegetables, but it also supported local economies and farmers in Missouri and lessened our carbon footprint,” Fullum said. She added that the community has always had an interest in fresh, locally grown product. Fullum remembers back to her childhood when her parents went to farmer’s markets and stopped by roadside stands to purchase high-quality produce that tasted great.
Although there are many benefits to the FTS program, there are some challenges in making it work.
“Weather and produce are not the most predictable commodities, so we had to find a way to work within our federal regulations and menu items,” Fullum said. “Finding a vendor with adequate liability insurance and who could deliver to 29 different sites was a challenge during hot months.”
Not only are the hot seasons difficult for some vendors, but produce availability during the fall months can be an obstacle to a successful program, Fullum said. In spite of these challenges, though, of 12,000 meals served in the past year, at least one item featured in each meal came from a local source.
Katie Frink assists Fullum with FTS. Frink is the supervisor for Columbia Nutrition Services and the chef instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center (CACC). Frink said that procurement is her biggest challenge in her role with FTS.
“It can be hard to specify what local means,” Frink said. “Plus our district requires several million dollars of liability insurance from our vendors, which can be difficult for small farms to carry.”
At CACC, Fink teaches cooking classes to high schoolers through the culinary arts program using food that is grown in CACC’s garden. For middle-school lunches, she provides local foods demonstrations to enhance the nutrition education process.
As the supervisor for nutrition services, Frink oversees CPS’ implementation of its FTS grant with three main programs.
CPS purchased hydroponic-growing systems for all six of the middle schools and uses the systems in its eighth-grade science curriculum. Frink said CPS also purchased equipment for its kitchens so that they can freeze and process local food throughout the school year. In addition, the schools have incorporated FTS lessons in sixth and eighth grade health classes, where the students also participate in a local food tasting.
“I have seen an increase in Farm to School activities since I have started here,” Frink said. “We have made ordering from local farmers easier for our kitchens, and I think we have set ourselves up to do more in the future.”
In the future, Fullum and Frink hope to purchase more produce in bulk and improve the life span of the fresh fruits and vegetables by using the new equipment to vacuum seal the produce and freeze it for use later.