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Farm to School

Nutrition Education
More than 900 Kentucky schools participating in Farm to School program

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2018

By Brenna R. Kelly
Staff writer
Tolliver Intermediate food service staff member Janet Potts makes sure students know that the marinara sauce was made that morning from tomatoes grown 15 miles from their school.
As students came through the lunch line at Tolliver Intermediate School, Janet Potts made sure they knew that the marinara sauce for the breadsticks was made just hours ago from fresh tomatoes and basil. 

“We’ve got homemade sauce right from the garden,” she said to each student. “Wait until you try this sauce.” 

Down the line, peppers and tomatoes topped side salads. The vegetables and herbs all came from a farm just 15 miles from the Danville Independent school. 
Tolliver Intermediate food service staff member Janet Potts makes sure students know that
the marinara sauce was made that morning from tomatoes grown 15 miles from their school.

This past summer the district became one of 77 Kentucky school districts participating in Farm to School, a program designed to get locally grown products into schools and onto students’ plates. 

Kentucky’s program began about eight years ago, but Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) officials say participation has increased in the last few years with more than 900 schools now serving fruits, vegetables and meats from more than 100 farms across the state. 

“It’s really exciting and it’s continuing to grow,” said Tina Garland, KDA Farm to School branch manager. “At first it was perceived possibly just as a fad, or a niche market, but not anymore. People are really being educated about where their food comes from and the importance of healthy eating.” 

‘We believed in the program’  
The fresh tomatoes, basil and peppers at Tolliver Intermediate came from Overman’s Bluegrass Fruits and Vegetables, a Garrard County farm owned by Babette and Kirby Overman. 

The couple first learned about Farm to School two years ago when Madison County Schools Food Service Director Scott Anderson invited area farmers to a meeting. 

Anderson said he wanted to implement the program because it not only helps the local economy, but teaches students about food production. 

“When you say it’s from a local farm and kids know the farm and they drive by that farm, it’s a big deal to them,” said Anderson, a former assistant principal. “I think kids take pride and eat more when they know where their food comes from.” 

At that first meeting in Madison County, the Overmans were one of only five farms to attend. 

“Kirby and I come from education backgrounds,” Babette Overman said. Her husband was a teacher, high school and collegiate basketball coach and is a former Garrard County school board member. Babette worked as a school administrative assistant. 

“We knew we believed in the program and we knew it would give us another avenue for what I call our veggieland,” she said. “Will we get rich at it? No. But it makes you very proud of what you do.” 

The first year was a learning experience, Babette Overman said. The couple tried to figure out what foods to plant to meet districts’ needs. 

Soon, more districts signed on. 

In addition to Danville Independent, the Overmans now provide fruits and vegetables to Madison, Scott, Montgomery, Bourbon and Jessamine county schools. 

“No school systems are the same, and in every school it all works differently,” she said. 
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.
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.”
Farm to School
Farm to School 
Tina Garland, branch manager for Farm to School at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, recommends districts start with berries, tomatoes, melons, lettuce or cucumbers from a local farmer. The department will soon issue 10 mini-grants for additional training, equipment and other needs to help farmers with their farm-to-school marketing efforts. The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has also received Farm to School grant money to put chefs into schools, said Diana Drury, KDE’s Farm to School specialist. The chefs work with the agriculture department to develop recipes using local foods and with KDE to provide training for districts’ food service staff, she said.

For help starting Farm to School, email Garland or go to their website.
Planning for Farm to School
Fall and winter are the best times to begin planning for Farm to School, said Babette Overman, owner of Overman’s Bluegrass Fruits and Vegetables. Overman, who supplies produce to six districts, recommends school districts talk to local farmers during the winter to so that farmers know what crops to plant in the spring. 
Junior Chef competition
The Farm to School program includes the annual Junior Chef competition, in which high school culinary teams compete for scholarships and the skillet trophy awarded to the state champion team.

Launched in 2013, the competition teaches recipe development, food preparation, marketing, public presentation, organization, teamwork and community involvement while educating students about the importance of local foods and agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture used Kentucky’s Junior Chef competition as the model for the first Southeast Region Junior Chef Competition in May. Montgomery County High School, the state champion in 2016 and 2017, came in second. More about the Junior Chef Program here
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