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VOL. 36 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2012

Farm to School program gets local

By Hollie Deese

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School lunches tend to get a bad rap. If the kids aren’t turning up their noses at the lunch lady’s special, those same lunch ladies are getting blasted by parents for serving food lacking in nutrition.

Add the institutional nature of mass-produced food, and it’s no wonder sack lunches are so popular.

The national Farm to School program may not be able to change the image of the lunch lady, but it is certainly trying to change the image of the lunch. The program connects schools with local farms, aiming to improve student nutrition while providing a healthy dose of agriculture education as well.

“A lot of our produce is shipped from California and is having to travel across the country to get to our schools,” says Judi Adkins, who helps with the program in Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools. “The produce we serve from Farm to School is much fresher and of course, tastes better when it comes from our own backyard.”

Schools in three Tennessee counties, Hancock, Hawkins, and Cocke began purchasing from local farmers in 2005. Knox County schools followed in the 2010-2011 school year, sourcing local produce to over 80 schools in the district. In 2010, Williamson County Schools partnered with local grower Delvin Farms to incorporate farm-fresh produce in menus at two pilot schools.

“We started meeting with our producers and the Montgomery County Extension Agency in October of 2011, and met weekly through the early spring of 2012,” Adkins says. “We discussed the logistics of the program, what kinds of produce we would like to use in our schools that can be grown in our area. We established that a 250-mile radius would be considered local, with preference to Montgomery County.”

The obvious bonus is supporting local and regional farmers. Since each Farm to School program is shaped by its unique community and region, the program changes to accommodate the area. But getting involved in the program takes some work for the farmers.

The school systems, for example, require farmers to have $1 million in insurance. They also need to have their produce inspected by the Extension Agency and work toward GAP (Good Agriculture Practices) certification.

“These two things were barriers for some farmers because of the expense,” Adkins says. “We had approximately 10 farmers that expressed interest, four that actually turned in a bid. We have received produce from two of these four farmers.”

Karla Kean, the horticulture extension agent for Tennessee State University in Montgomery County, has been working with interested farmers to get them eligible to participate in the program.

“Right now GAP certification is voluntary, but it is coming down the line to where it is going to be mandatory,” Kean says. “It depends who you are selling it to. Kroger, they are going to say your farms have to have GAP certification, and it can be very expensive. The farmers I am working with who have three acres, five acres, 10 acres, it is very expensive to spend $2,000 to get the certification.”

She has worked with interested farmers to complete food-safety plans and implementation practices, and is currently trying to get an auditor to help with cost.

“We also applied for a $100,000 grant to build a hydroponic greenhouse at Clarksville High School that will supply tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce to Clarksville High and Ridgeview Middle,” she says.

A final determination on that grant should come in October.

“It will be run by the ag program as a business at Clarksville High and will be part of their curriculum and hands-on learning,” she says. “This will also be a learning tool for the business classes at the school. The produce will be sold to the cafeterias to help offset the costs incurred of growing the vegetable.”

Adkins says 14 schools in the district volunteered for Farm to School last year, but all 36 are on board to serve fresh and local fruit and vegetables when they can.

“The farmers call and let me know what they have to deliver and then deliver once a week to our central warehouse,” she says. “We then deliver to the schools as quickly as we can to insure they receive the freshest product possible.”

Schools have so far this year received strawberries, tomatoes, yellow squash, zucchini squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, green peppers and fresh eggs.

“The response has been great from our schools. They are very excited to receive the fresh items and share with the children that they are grown in Montgomery County,” Adkins says. “There’s nothing better than a Tennessee-grown tomato.”

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