By Tracy Wright
Many foodies have heard of the “farm to table” concept where restaurants use local ingredients in their dishes. Did you know that there is a vibrant Farm to School program growing in Alachua County’s public and charter schools? Now in its fourth year, in 2016-2017, more than 13,000 students are offered locally grown fruits and vegetables each week. The program doubled in size this current year.
In 2013, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services awarded the county a $50,000 grant as a district that showed growth in using locally sourced agriculture in their school nutrition program. At the time, only 24 schools with students who have primarily free or reduced lunch get the fresh produce. In 2018, every school in the district now has fresh, locally grown produce in their school meals.
Kelli Brew, coordinator of this very successful program, was hired because of her background with local farms, serving health meals to homeless populations and her connection with Florida organic growers.
For Brew, her career is truly a labor of love.
“The benefits to our students and their families are endless,” Brew said. “We provide local produce to high need areas and expose these students to new foods. We are bringing fresh and local foods into our schools and helping to keep the investment local as well. Right now, we serve the largest population of local food in the county because of all the students who eat school meals. The school district’s partnership farmers into this system is a win-win for everyone.”
Studies have shown that students who can see where food grows or have a hand in growing food are more likely to eat it. A recent study conducted by University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) found that children who were in school districts with Farm to School programs ate more fruits and vegetables.
In the Alachua County Farm to School program, Brew said they have done pre-and-post-taste-tests with students and have found this to be very much the case, especially students in schools with gardens.
In addition to food purchased from local farms, school gardens at 15 schools are producing salad fixings and collard greens for school lunches. School gardens grew 1,750 pounds of fruits and vegetables for the county’s school lunch program.
A sampling of a week’s lunch menu at Rawlings Elementary (which has their own school garden) featured an abundance of tasty salads like Taco Salad at 206 calories and Chef Salad at 213 calories in addition to featured sides like Sesame Broccoli, Mexi Cali Corn and Lemon Herb Pole Beans.
“Our schools’ kitchen staffs love working with the fresh, local ingredients and we work to educate them on developing recipes using these items,” Brew said. “The produce is organic, very fresh and healthy and great tasting!”
Another part of the program, the Farm to School to Work Hub allows students to learn more about the food system. A joint venture between the Food and Nutrition Department (FNS) and the Exceptional Student Education Department (ESE) of the Alachua County Public Schools, the Hub produces over 150 heads of lettuce each week for use in school salads, grows produce from local farms for school lunches across the district.
The Farm to School to Work Hub allows students to receive valuable training in horticulture, food production, food safety, and nutrition. Many of these students have disabilities in which they may receive public school services until age 21, and this program gives these students needed employment training to gain further independence.
What does the future hold for the Farm to School program? Goals include embedding the knowledge program to be a bigger part of school education continuing to help students with disabilities and educating families about the importance of locally-sourced, healthy food.
“We need to give teachers the educational tools through our gardens and our knowledge to further cement this as a part of our schools’ curriculum,” Brew said. “Another component which we have just begun is sending this valuable information home to the families to educate them on ways they can procure and use local and fresh ingredients in their homes. We are going into the classrooms and exciting children about cooking and eating more healthy foods.”
To learn more about the program, visit http://farm2schoolalachua.com/.