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Published October 05, 2010, 11:03 AM

Program seeks to match farms with school districts

October is apple month at the Bemidji (Minn.) School District. September was corn on the cob, cucumber and tomato month. Each month, as part of its effort to feature more locally and regionally grown food, the district features food grown in the area.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

October is apple month at the Bemidji (Minn.) School District. September was corn on the cob, cucumber and tomato month.

Each month, as part of its effort to feature more locally and regionally grown food, the district features food grown in the area.

“The students seem to be enjoying it,” says Marleen Webb, the district’s food services coordinator.

Bemidji is part of a growing, nationwide movement in which school districts obtain some of their menu items close to home.

The goal is helping the local economy while also providing students with healthier food and more insight into where food comes from.

There are 2,255 farm-to-school programs in 46 states, according to an estimate from the National Farm to School Network.

Nationwide, 9,714 schools in 2,136 school districts are involved with farm-to-school programs, the organization’s website says.

Eighteen programs are offered in Minnesota. There are five programs in Montana, three in North Dakota and one in South Dakota, the website says.

Some of the programs are modest and involve such things as students planting fruit trees or gardens. In other programs, schools make a concerted effort to buy local foods.

Students, teachers, farmers, parents and school districts all benefit from the programs, according to a report from the organization.

For instance, students eat more fruits and vegetables when farm to school programs are offered, the report says.

Economic gains to region

Other research finds big potential economic benefits associated with farm to school programs.

Such a program could add as much as $430,000 annually to an area’s economy, according to a new report from the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

That would be enough to support two or three full-time farms, says Ryan Pesch, Minnesota extension community economics educator and the report’s co-author.

The report studied five counties — Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena — in central Minnesota. There are 20,840 students who attend schools in the five counties, the report says.

The annual economic impact ranges from $20,000 if every school in the five counties featured one locally grown meal per month to $430,000 if the school bought a lot of food from local farmers.

The research focused on apples, beef hot dogs, cabbage, oatmeal, potatoes, sweet corn and wild rice — all available from local farmers and easily added to school menus.

The Bemidji School District began participating in a farm-to-school program last spring after receiving a federal grant.

Initially, the district planted a large garden, produce from which is being fed at school.

Now the district is broadening its approach to buy food from farmers in the surrounding area.

The Bemidji School District has more than 5,000 students, so buying food only from farmers in the immediate area isn’t sufficient, Webb says.

Suggestions for farmers

Laura Behenna wants to connect farmers and school districts.

Her Flathead Valley Farm to School program is working to bring more fresh, locally produced food to school districts in Flathead and Lincoln counties in northwestern Montana.

Behenna says some schools in her area are ready and willing to bring in locally produced farm products, while other schools don’t seem to be interested, at least for now.

School districts might not pay much attention if famers or farm groups push for the use of more locally produced food, says Behenna, a volunteer with AmeriCorps VISTA, the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps

Her advice to farmers:

“Get parents involved. School administrators are more willing to listen when parents, especially several parents, want something,” she says.

Farmers, for their part, always should try to network with parents, teachers, students and school officials, she says.

Farmers and agriculture in general also benefit from farm-to-school programs because they give young students a greater understanding of where food comes from, says Kathie Starkweather with the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., who works to promote the programs.

Farmers shouldn’t expect to make a living just from selling to schools, she says.

“It won’t be enough by itself. But it can add to the income stream,” she says.

Information: www.farmtoschool.org.

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