It takes a believer
In addition to teaching students where their food comes from, the program benefits the district, the farmer and the local economy, Overman said. Her farm has had to hire more people to keep up with the demand.
“It just comes full circle,” she said. In 2015, Kentucky schools spent $8.8 million on local food, agriculture department officials said. In some counties, school districts are the county’s largest procurers of food.
Danville Independent started using locally produced fruits and vegetables during this year’s summer feeding program. The district expanded to use local foods as often as possible in school lunches. Tolliver Intermediate student Mahi Patel enjoys the freshly made marinara sauce and a salad topped with peppers and tomatoes from Overman’s Bluegrass Fruits and Vegetables.
The key to making the program work is buy-in from both the food service director and the farmer, Overman said. For farmers it means harvesting on weekends and delivering to schools on Monday or Tuesday, and for food service directors it means planning.
“It takes a little bit longer to prepare the food because it’s just not out of a bag or out of a can,” she said. “But once they see the students’ reaction, it makes a huge difference.”
There are regulations that farmers must follow, she said. And for both sides, there’s paperwork.
“You’ve got to believe in it,” Overman said.
Danville Independent’s Food Service Director April Peach is a believer.
Peach came to the district this fall after working in food service in Nelson County and Frankfort Independent. She took over for Patty Taylor who started the Farm to School program during the summer.
“She passed the torch to me and my goal is to go even further with it,” Peach said.
Peach, who participated in a pilot program to bring local meats into Frankfort Independent, said forming a relationship with farmers is the best way to make farm-to-school successful.
Directors can meet farmers at conferences or just by calling area farms and asking what they produce, she said.
“The main thing is you have to have enough land, and you have to have the will, you have to be a whole-hearted farmer to do this,” she said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Overcoming change, language barriers
Food service directors and farmers who want to start the program can also make a connection through Garland who often hears from farmers when they have a certain quantity of a product available.
“I get on my phone or email and broadcast that out and then help them write specifications for it and connect them and to get the product moved,” she said. “I’m like a little matchmaker.”
Garland can also help with what she believes is the biggest hurdle for both sides – a language barrier. Food service directors are used to ordering food by clicking, and foods comes in already processed.
“But when you are dealing with local farmers, it’s not that way,” she said.
Food service directors have to write specifications about how they need the food. For example, she said, strawberries from a farmer won’t come in clam shell containers.
“You have to change your thinking in how you want that product to be packaged, delivered and the hold time of it,” she said. “What farmers are bringing in is a variety bred for taste, and what’s typically coming in is a variety bred for longevity.”
Garland is a vital resource because she’s a farmer “so she knows what it takes,” Peach said.
“She knows the program from both sides, and she’s made simple it for us,” she said.
Peach and Garland recommend food service directors considering Farm to School to examine their menus and start with fruits and vegetables. Then ask area farmers what they can provide.
This school year, Overman Farms supplied corn, watermelon, cherry tomatoes, cantaloupe, potatoes, squash and zucchini to Danville Independent, Peach said.
Most local farmers will not be able to provide enough for the entire district, so Peach uses the local item at one school, then the next time she gets a local item, she uses it at another school.
Anderson also recommends processing and freezing vegetables in the fall for use over the winter months.
“We save a lot of our summer product for December, January and February,” he said. “That way we can provide those farm-fresh veggies almost year-round.”
Food services directors say local produce is often priced competitively to the typical suppliers. And sometimes it’s even less expensive, Peach said.
In the past, the Department of Agriculture has offered grants to schools for the program. This year, the department will offer grants to farmers thanks to a $99,913 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The grant will also allow KDA to hold two regional training events for farmers and food service directors and allow for 10 mini-grants for training and equipping farmers to participate in Farm to School.
Garland hopes that by getting more farmers involved, more food service directors will try the program.
“For a food service director to change their way is huge, so I respect them greatly for giving Farm to School a chance,” she said. “Once they see the benefits and the results and how the students take the product, it’s a win-win.”