New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released his report “Locally Grown: Farm-to-School Programs in New York State” on Friday, October 21 at Clinton School in Poughkeepsie, NY. The report details hurdles school districts face when creating and sustaining such programs, outlines federal and state initiatives that are intended to encourage farm-to-school programs, and highlights six successful programs in NYS including the partnership between Poughkeepsie City School District (PCSD) and Poughkeepsie Farm Project (PFP).
PFP and PCSD have been collaborating on farm-to-school since 2013 to put local food into school meals and to provide Poughkeepsie students with engaging learning experiences surrounding the food system. On farm field trips, in school gardens, during cooking in the classroom sessions, and through cafeteria tastings of fresh local produce students learn to learn about growing and eating nutritious, local food. In schools, PCSD trials new recipes using locally-sourced ingredients to include in school lunches and conducts taste tests and surveys at school open houses and parent teacher-conferences, seeking feedback from students and parents about whether or not they enjoyed each dish. And in its Discovery Gardens, PFP leads Using Gardens to Teach, a workshop that helps educators integrate gardens into lessons about diverse subjects that align with learning standards while earning professional development credits.
These activities are a few among many initiatives of the farm-to-school project collaboration between PFP and PCSD that seeks to introduce more fresh local produce into school meals and shift the culture of food among students, staff, and families. And the results are undeniable: PFP collected data on the effects of the farm-to-school activities on students’ vegetable consumption during school lunch and found that elementary students who participated in the program ate five times as much kale (by weight) as their peers who were not involved in farm visits and cooking workshops. In addition, 63% of students in the program group finished their serving of kale compared with only 8% of their peers who were not involved in the program and 1% of peers who were not involved and attended a different school. There are more locally-grown foods and NYS products in school meals and summer meals than before the program started. Newly developed recipes are in regular rotation on school menus. Local foods, including root vegetables, kale, and squash are served to students every Tuesday. And, food service staff have received training in preparing fresh whole produce, developing recipes and promoting healthy choices.
“When PFP educators arrive at Poughkeepsie schools, the students exclaim with delight and ask what they will be tasting that day. Our partnership with Poughkeepsie schools is really changing what kids eat. When students have the opportunities to see where their food comes from while exploring farm fields, cooking simple healthy dishes, and learning their academic curriculum in farm and garden settings, they are more interested in eating local food in their school cafeterias, growing their own food at home, and teaching their families new recipes with local produce.”
~Jamie Levato, education director of Poughkeepsie Farm Project.
These positive results are crucial because, according to DiNapoli, “Interest in farm-to-school programs is widespread, but it’s not always easy for school districts across New York to bring fresh, locally produced foods to their students.” The report describes the challenges farmers can face in entering a farm-to-school market and competing in school food procurement. Farmers may not be aware of the publications in which schools post their request for bids, or may not be familiar with other aspects of the procurement process such as billing complexities. The expense of complying with food safety processes can also be a barrier, particularly for small vendors.
At the report-release at Clinton School, DiNapoli explored the new school garden, tasted some of the Farm-to-School recipes, and sampled some fresh PFP scarlet turnips with third and fourth grade students. DiNapoli challenged local communities and policymakers to use the findings to bolster Farm-to-School programs which bring local food into school cafeterias. The report’s recommendations include: looking to boards of cooperative educational services, which in some areas support farm-to-school programs, as a source of expert advice or an organizational home for efforts to emphasize local food purchases; providing training in planning and implementing successful farm-to-school programs to school district personnel; and supporting joint purchasing agreements among districts through the state farm-to-school grant program and examining the role of farm-to-school as regional food hubs grow across the state.