By Wayne Dominick
Eating local – the trendy byword in food circles – has found its way to Kentucky school cafeterias, with the help of a Kentucky Department of Agriculture program that links local growers with schools.
“It just makes so much sense,” said Tina Garland, who coordinates the Farm to School program. “Why should our students be eating food that’s been shipped over a thousand miles while there is so much good, nutritious food right here in Kentucky?”
While the students benefit from fresh, local produce, the farmers get another market for their produce. The program is a collaboration among the USDA, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, the University of Kentucky Extension and Nutrition Education Program, the Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Public Health.
According to Garland, 84 counties are participating in the program in one way or another, and she continues to travel the state to make that number grow.
“Right now, the biggest challenge is finding the right matches – farmers that can meet the needs of the districts in their area,” she said.
PHOTO: Orchard owner Bill Jackson checks the buds on one of the trees that will be supplying apples for the Bowling Green Independent Schools in the fall.
In Warren County, she linked Bill Jackson, owner of Jackson’s Orchards, with Kim Simpson, food service operations coordinator for Bowling Green Independent School District.
Two years ago, Jackson started supplying Simpson with apples, later expanded to peaches, and has since helped Simpson find local suppliers for asparagus, blueberries and strawberries. Bowling Green Independent also buys hydroponically grown lettuce and tomatoes from a local grower.
“I have to admit,” Jackson said, “I was a little skeptical at first. I had approached the schools years ago and was turned away. But Tina assured me that things were different and we could work things out.”
Even with his reservations, Jackson saw supplying the schools with fresh, locally grown apples as a way to make a positive change on student eating habits. “You give a kid a good, tasty apple and they’ll eat it. Do it long enough and before you know it, you’ll have kids eating apples instead of candy bars,” he said.
Garland said Jackson’s skepticism is something she hears from most producers. “The first thing I have to do is change the producer’s mindset. They have been told for so long that they couldn’t sell to the schools and they’re a little leery of making a commitment.”
For her part, Simpson said she was concerned about having a dependable source. “I wanted to make sure that if I went with a local grower, deliveries would be on time and the quantities I needed could be delivered,” she said.
She added that she has to be more flexible dealing with local growers simply because of the size of their operations.
“I realize that sometimes something will happen and they can’t meet a delivery, so I make sure I have a second option,” she said. “It means a little more work for me, but I think it’s a small price to pay for good quality, fresh produce.”
Bowling Green board member Hamp Moore acknowledged Simpson’s extra effort, “but when I hear about kids wanting more fruits and vegetables, I know it’s worth it. I can’t say enough good things about this program and the great job Kim has done finding suppliers. I don’t see a downside to it.”
If the food trays leaving the line at Bowling Green’s Dishman McGinnis Elementary School are any indication, the produce passes the kid test. “Most of the kids don’t really care where the food came from as long as it tastes good,” Simpson said.
In fact, the students like the fruits and vegetables so much, they are allowed to take as much as they want from the Garden Patch, a section of the food line devoted to a variety of fruits and vegetables.
“The favorites are strawberries, blueberries and, believe it or not, banana peppers,” said cafeteria manager Donna Martinez.
An informal survey of kindergarten students found that eight out of 10 chose a fruit or vegetable as their favorite item on their lunch tray.
Kindergarten student Saleem Tarrence said strawberries are his favorite, “especially the great big ones.”
Third-grader Taniya Atkins picked banana peppers as her top choice. “I bet I could eat a million of them,” she said.
Mary Clemmons, who works at Western Kentucky University’s School of Nursing and visits the school to mentor Taniya, said she has noticed Taniya and her friends eating more fruits and vegetables. “That’s usually the first things they eat off their trays. They really enjoy having a good variety to choose from,” she said.
Garland wants to see Farm to School grow, not only in the number of farmers and districts involved, but also in commodities and producers.
“I’d really like to see the school ag departments get involved and start growing some of the food served at school. They could use hydroponics to supply fresh vegetables all year long,” she said. “I also think there could be a way to get Kentucky cattle producers in the program. Why not serve home-grown beef?”
For more information on Farm to School, contact Tina Garland at (502) 573-0282.
— Dominick is a writer from Frankfort