This post is brought to you by the School Nutrition Association. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
This month I visited the School Nutrition Association (SNA) Annual National Conference (ANC) here in Atlanta. I wasn't sure what to expect except that it is the biggest School Nutrition conference in the country. With nearly 7,000 attendees that included food vendors, school nutrition directors, and even school cafeteria staff. It is the mecca of all things regarding the food we feed our kids when they aren't at home. I learned a lot about the school nutrition area that I wasn't aware of, but one of the best aspects of my visit was to find out more about the Farm to School initiatives happening across the country.
There were multiple sessions about the Farm to Table program including one from the National Farm to School Network that has fantastic resources for school, teachers, or parents looking to start a program in their area. While I am a huge advocate for teaching kids to garden either in the home or in a group setting, I would love to see more schools participating because of the many benefits it has. These sessions give me hope that the consumer trends towards fresher foods are important to parents and school nutrition directors across the country.
Farm to School programs have lots of great benefits including:
- Education – Learning about the plants, garden, and food prep through agriculture and nutrition.
- Healthy food options – Students get fresh food options instead of processed ones. Children are five times more likely to eat food that they grew themselves. I can personally attest to this with my own children.
- Supporting local farmers – Creating a procurement agreement with local farms will help in costs and helping local farmers by supporting their business. The food doesn't have to travel as far either, so it is delivered fresher.
- Fundraising – School that don't make enough food from their harvest for a meal in the school can sell the items at a local farmers market or even make a dish like pepper jelly or salsa that can be sold to raise funds to put back into the garden.
The session I attended was lead by Joanne Kinsey the Director of School Nutrition Services in Chesapeake Public Schools and Rachel Spencer the Farm to School lead, USDA Food and Nutrition Service. They spoke about all of the aspects that are involved in starting a Farm to School program in their school districts. As a parent that would love to have one of these programs in our school, I got to see a bigger picture of the process. Gathering a stellar team of teachers, parents, local farmers, and investors are the first goal. Because of all of the aspects I mentioned above, it is important to tackle the program from all sides. Teachers can use the garden as a learning experience. It can be part of a curriculum in a science department or even a home economics class. Parents can help with fundraising, grant writing, and marketing of the program to bring in more interest. Going to local farm meetings to meet farmers in your area and see if they would like to be involved in the project. When you market the program to the community, you will find that others, whether they have children in the school or not know that this is a great program and want to help. Maybe someone donates the land to farm on or supplies like a tractor. Home Improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot have donated supplies to local schools to help with the process. Knowing details like this is important to save money on the program.
I left the session ready to join the PTA, locate a plot of land for the school's new garden and volunteer all of my time to making the Farm to School program happen in my daughter's schools. That is saying a lot because if you know me, I am NOT a PTA mom. I'm also a full-time student and blogger. In other words, I have zero time to devote to a plan of this magnitude, but I wish I did. Our children are our future, and they need to learn these necessary skills for a number of reasons.
I've discovered how well Georgia is implementing some of these programs in the school systems. Georgia is a huge farming area, so there are a lot of local farmers and farming organizations that are willing to help. Georgia Grown, Captain Planet Foundation, and Georgia Organics are just a few. Ashley Rouse is the Farm to School Director at Sodexo- Jackmont servicing Atlanta Public Schools here in Georgia and she also presented at the School Nutrition Associations annual conference about the Farm to Table program she is working on with the Atlanta Public School system. She showcased some of the students and the gardening successes they have had over the last few years.
October is National Farm to School Month, a time to celebrate the connections happening all over the country between children and local food! From taste tests in the cafeteria and nutrition education activities in the classroom to farm visits and school garden harvest parties, schools, farms, communities and organizations in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and U.S. Territories take part in the celebrations. The National Farm to School Network advocated for the creation of National Farm to School Month by Congress in 2010 and now organizes the annual celebration with dozens of partners across the country.
You can see more of the great presentations and sessions that happened at the SNA annual conference here.