Friday, May 18, 2007

Readin', writin' & 'sparagus

Talk about a "no-brainer" -- how about a program that simultaneously improves the nutritional value of school lunches, reduces our consumption of fossil fuels, and supports local farmers? Strategies designed to increase consumption of locally grown produce -- primarily by creating direct marketing opportunities are growing in popularity. Roadside stands, pick-your-own operations, farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture are tried and true examples of this genre. Add farm-to-school programs to this expanding list. (GW)

Program puts locally grown produce on students' plates

By Sharon Dowell
The Oklahoman
May 16, 2007

In dozens of school lunchrooms across Oklahoma, students are enjoying locally grown produce, thanks to the Oklahoma Farm to School program. The program helps link Oklahoma growers and farmers with schools wanting to serve locally grown vegetables and fruit.

Students in grade schools, middle schools and high schools are enjoying Oklahoma-grown produce — including seedless watermelons, honeydew melons, peaches, strawberries, different types of lettuce, green onions, tomatoes, basil, spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes and even asparagus. They get to eat what's in season and what growers are harvesting.

Chris Kirby, Oklahoma's Farm to School administrator, said the program is one way our state is helping improve students' health and well-being.

"It is connecting the local farmer with the local school districts in an effort to get kids better access to garden-fresh fruits and vegetables while providing wonderful economic opportunities for our farmers,” Kirby said. "But it goes a lot further than that. It's a real holistic approach. It's getting the kids connected back to agriculture and learning where the food comes from through school gardens and farmers markets and farm visits, through the tasting opportunities, cooking classes and getting chefs involved through cooking classes.”

If you can teach the students how fruits and vegetables taste and how to grow them, they will carry that know-ledge through their lifetime, Kirby said recently. "It's about access to those foods. Farm to School is getting kids connected back to the source of our food, wanting to eat it,” she said.

The students also are learning why the Oklahoma-grown foods are important to their health and well-being and why health, nutrition and fitness are important throughout their lives.

Kirby works with child-nutrition directors and food-service directors at the schools, with Ag in the Classroom to provide educational materials, with the state Education Department and with growers and farmers.

In the works is an Oklahoma Farm to School Web site, but it will not be operational for a while. However, www. is a general Web site focusing on program milestones in the 23 states that have adopted some form of the Farm to School program.

"I would love to see this program grow and down the road possibly expand to other Oklahoma foods,” said Angie Treat, child-nutrition director with the public schools in Beggs, which takes part in Farm to School, working with local grower James Cooper of Bristow. "You hope you can make a difference, one child at a time.” Cooper grows produce just for the one school district and delivers the food to the door of the school district's kitchens.

The Oklahoma Farm to School program officially came into being with a state law passed and signed in 2006. However, the concept took root six years ago, when the state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, working through the Oklahoma Food Policy Council, were seeking a way to connect local farmers, local food and local consumers. A survey of the state's public institutions — schools, hospitals, prisons and parks — was conducted in 2002 to see if those facilities were interested in serving Oklahoma-grown foods.

"We had a 68 percent response rate, and that told us there was real interest in this concept out there,” Kirby said. "A lot of schools were wanting to work with local growers but they had so many questions and concerns — they didn't know if they could compete in price, how delivery would work, if farmers were willing to work with schools or even if there was enough production available during the school year.”

Kirby said the pilot project for Farm to School was launched in 2005 with the Shawnee, Broken Arrow, Edmond and Tahlequah school districts buying seedless watermelons grown by Bob Ramming of Ramming Produce Inc. near Hinton. The following year, Tulsa and Muskogee schools were added to the pilot program, and three times as many Hinton watermelons were sold to the schools to be served in the lunchrooms. Ramming now sells watermelons to many of the school districts involved in the state program.

"It's very involved,” Ramming said. He deals with a broker, who handles all the paperwork necessary to get the produce from the farm to the schools. "I just grow it and box it and ship it,” Ramming said. "It's an excellent program. I'd like to see a lot more items grown for the program. I hope that will happen.”

Kirby has been involved with the Oklahoma Farm to School concept from the beginning, as a member of the Food Policy Council and then with the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to help make the Oklahoma Farm to School program a reality. She then applied for the job of program administrator.

Though she's been administrator for only five months, she is working to increase the number of Farm to School participant schools and growers throughout Oklahoma and spreading the word about its early successes to groups outside Oklahoma.

Trained in marketing, Kirby's previous work has included being coordinator of the OSU-OKC Farmers Market and working to expand the Urban Harvest and Community Gardens programs through the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.


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