Extension shares positive outcomes of Farm-to-School

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Program offers food for thought, example for Missouri schools

According to Dr. Pam Duitsman, Missouri University Extension nutrition and health education specialist, childhood obesity and lack of good food access has been a growing concern for communities in southwest Missouri.

However, since 2009, one school district has worked to bring fresh, local food and educational experiences into the school day, thanks to grants through the USDA to support a new food program initiative.

"Grants received through the USDA Farm to School Initiative in both 2014 and 2016 have provided support for Springfield public schools to initiate a Farm-to-school (F2S) program to incorporate fresh, local produce into school meal programs," Duitsman said.

The program's goals are to improve student health by providing a variety of fresh, nutritious food options, provide hands-on nutrition education and support the local food system, family farmers and local economy through connections with community farms, Duitsman said.

Research has found that the program increases not just student's consumption of fruits and vegetables, but a deeper understanding of foods, including the seasonality of produce, sustainable agriculture and growing cycles.

"When local, fresh food is incorporated into the school cafeteria, participation in school meal programs increases by an average of 9.3 percent," Duitsman said.

In addition, students show an improved attitude toward eating healthy, and select healthier foods on their own — a huge perk in any parents' book. Parents also report positive changes in shopping, cooking and discussions about healthy eating.

Along with ripple effects in the home, teachers are also impacted, becoming more conscious of healthy dietary behaviors, and food service staff more interested in developing seasonal recipes and new uses for local foods.

"The best news is that parents also report that their children are making improved food choices long-term," Duitsman said. "Farmers report that F2S programs provide opportunities for improved business and improve cooperation between schools, farms and the community food system. All of these positive impacts of F2S have been happening in SPS for some time."

Dusty Reid, facilities and operations director for Cassville schools, said there's a mix of the program's feasibility, and potential challenges, for the Cassville district.

"We strive to purchase and use fresh items as often as we can, but as far as bringing in food from local farmers, we have yet to try that," he said. "These are great programs and can have a positive effect in a lot of schools, especially more urban schools where students may not be exposed to a lot of agriculture. However, they are not a great fit for every community. Our community has a lot of agriculture, but it’s mostly cattle, feed corn and beans. It would be very difficult to find a local farmer that could produce the quantity of items we need.

"In addition, most produce in this area is harvested during the time school is out. Local produce also tends to cost much more than what we currently pay, and it also requires more preparation in the kitchen which would result in the need to hire more staff."

Reid said local foods would require more storage space, which is limited on campus, and farmers typically don't deliver, so time and expense spent to pick up the produce could be an issue, along with billing.

"Placing orders with local farmers, as well as the billing and payment of local farmers is not as efficient as with our vendors, and food safety protection is also a concern as local farmers would have very few requirements as far as handling procedures," he said. 

The district does have a greenhouse, but using it on a large scale would not be feasible, Reid said.

"We could use the district's greenhouse for some items, but it is a very small greenhouse intended for classroom use and is closed during the winter," Reid said. "The seasonality of the local produce makes menu planning very difficult since this needs to be done weeks in advance. Our suppliers and vendors do a great job providing quality ingredients at an economical price. With a limited budget, value is a real concern. Being able to acquire quotes from several different vendors ensures we are not wasting limited dollars in our food service program." 

The district currently obtains food from Springfield Grocers, Cysco, Price Cutter and other restaurant food supply companies. 

A third USDA grant to support F2S efforts through June of 2019 will soon expand the program to Taney County, Duitsman said.

Duitsman reported the following comprehensive and positive outcomes since FS2 was implemented:

• Increased implementation and sustainability of school gardens

• Teams of students are implementing and sustaining gardens at their respective school sites

• Outdoor classroom/gardening curriculum integrated into teacher instruction

• Cooperative agreements developed with Springfield Community Gardens

• Nine tower gardens are being used in classrooms

• The first-ever SPS Junior Chef Competition offered educational experiences and tremendous behavioral impacts for students and their families

• Fresh, local fruits and vegetables were introduced into the school cafeteria at four summer school sites during a pilot implementation phase, and local food was purchased for all 54 SPS schools the following fall semester

• SPS Nutrition Services is working with Springfield Grocer and future food hubs to implement a system for purchasing large quantities of local food

For more information, people may contact Duitsman in Greene County at 417-881-8909.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: