Why “farm to school” isn’t just a buzzword

The trendy “farm to table” movement has often been criticized as elitist or exclusive to hipster foodies who won’t eat chicken at a restaurant unless they see the photos proving that it enjoyed a happy, free range life (Portlandia, anyone?). “Farm to school” may sound similarly trendy, but in Mississippi, serving healthy local products in school meals is more than just a foodie ploy to get kids to eat spaghetti squash (which would be awesome, by the way); it’s key to improving students’ and communities’ health and well-being.

Harvesting kale and collard greens. Look how big those leaves are!

Harvesting kale and collard greens. Look how big those leaves are!

At the 2nd annual Mississippi Farm to Cafeteria Conference this week, my fellow MS FoodCorps service members and I listened to Rose Tate, FoodService Director for the Mound Bayou School District in the MS Delta, recount her reasons for implementing the district’s farm to school program. It started with an elementary school student who suffered from type one diabetes. He would regularly collapse during the school day; the ambulance would often be called, and not surprisingly, his teachers complained of behavioral problems in class. The school nurse and administrators noticed that the child’s diabetic collapses would usually occur right after he ate his school lunch, a meal composed largely of processed, pre-packaged foods and simple carbohydrates like french fries.

Rose knew that something had to be done about the lunch program, especially when she later found out that 60% of the Mound Bayou student population had been diagnosed as “borderline diabetic.” Fearing a health crisis in her schools, Rose worked to bring locally grown fruits and vegetables onto the school lunch line, in addition to replacing all white bread with whole grain. Since then, Bayou Mound School District nurses have seen a dramatic decline in students’ health problems; teachers have noticed an improvement in children’s attention spans and test scores.

So, this is what we eat at Thanksgiving??

So, this is what we eat at Thanksgiving??

Replacing the pre-packaged, nutritionally deficient foods in school lunches (anyone remember those mystery meat chalupas?) with locally grown fruits and vegetables supplies students with the essential nutrition that they need to focus during class, feel good about themselves and grow up healthy, avoiding diseases like adult onset diabetes and obesity. More than that, farm to school programs support the local economy and small family farms.

Hangin' out in the kale forest.

Hangin’ out in the collards forest.

It was inspiring to hear from food service directors like Ms. Tate, as well as growers, non-profit directors, and government officials who are all passionate about serving kids healthy, delicious school meals. These folks’ diverse perspectives led to lively discussions about Mississippi’s nascent farm to school programs, including the obstacles that exist in putting these programs in place. Β For one, most small farms can’t afford the safety certifications that many school districts prefer before purchasing produce. There is also the concern that children won’t eat the healthier menu items, and indeed critics have been quick to point out a rise in school lunch waste in schools that have started serving healthier foods. Of course students will balk when they first see a baked sweet potato in place of the french fries they are accustomed to. That’s why farm to school efforts must be accompanied by robust nutrition and garden education programming.

When children see sweet peas growing, when they learn how to cook squash, when they meet the person who grew the apples they eat at lunch, they are more likely to eat the nutritious, but unfamiliar items that show up on the lunch line, not to mention develop long-lasting, healthy relationships with their food. Even in the few months that I’ve been teaching classes, I’ve seen students Β progress from refusing to eat an apple with the peel still on it to munching happily on uncooked kale stems.

Full disclosure: they're not going to like everything. This priceless face captured while trying Asian greens salad from the garden.

Full disclosure: they’re not going to like everything. This priceless face captured while trying Asian greens salad with homemade ranch dressing.

That’s why, with our garden education program established and growing, the logical next step is to start serving locally grown fruits and veggies in the cafeteria.Β My goal for 2014 is to work with the administrators at my school to bring in local products to replace some of the pre-packaged ones they order from a national commercial distributor. Β I’m expecting pushback regarding cost, the additional time it will take to get bids from farmers and write up contracts, and the logistics of transportation and delivery, not to mention time and energy required to develop new recipes for menu items. But I think it will be worth it. Being a private non-profit school, we don’t have district-wide contracts in place that bar single schools from being able to change up their menus, so this is the perfect opportunity to pilot a farm to school program on a small scale.

Happy harvesting for a salad lesson.

Happy harvesting for a salad lesson.

Farm to school in Mississippi is not just a fleeting trend, it’s part of a multi-pronged solution to the public health crisis facing our country. It’s also the right thing to do. Access to good food is a basic human right, and teaching the younger generations how to grow up healthy is just as important as teaching them how to solve a quadratic equation. Let’s start by showing them how delicious locally grown sweet potatoes can be.

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