July 18, 2019 | 76° F

REYES: Farm schools benefit regional food systems

Opinions Column: Concrete Jungle Gym


In New Jersey, early fall is a time of great bounty with more than 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables in season, ripe for the picking (and eating). This colorful harvest is happening across the country and is celebrated every October as National Farm to School Month, designated by Congress in 2010. For many adults who were out of secondary school before the most recent child nutrition program changes, school lunch carries mixed feelings. Stories of cardboard pizza and “mystery meat” are pervasive in my mid-millenial group of friends. However, families, school districts, municipalities and counties alike are working together to ensure students have access to the nutritious foods they need while also supporting the local and regional food economies.

According to the National Farm to School Network, an advocacy and networking organization working on local food sourcing and education issues, farm to school (also known as “F2S”) “enriches the connection communities have with fresh, healthy food and local food producers by changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and preschools.” F2S certainly differs by location — you might have 2-4 months of growing in Maine while Hawaii enjoys a year-round growing season. Nevertheless, successful F2S implementation always includes one or more of the following:

Procurement: purchasing, promoting and serving local foods in the cafeteria or classroom.

Education: engaging students in activities related to food, cooking, health, nutrition or agriculture.

School gardens: hands-on learning in various subjects through gardening.

As an AmeriCorps service member with FoodCorps and the New Brunswick Community Farmers Market, I was able to source cucumbers, apples and corn through our vendor, Pop's Farm in Monroe Township, New Jersey, for a taste test with New Brunswick middle school students. Many of them were amazed by how fresh and flavorful the produce was — one student remarked, “I never thought apples could taste this good!” This provided them the opportunity to taste locally grown foods and learn how their food was grown, something that is missing from many students' development as only 3.4 hours of nutrition education is given to a child each year on average. Likewise, this was a good financial opportunity for our farmer, providing his small family farm with more business and exposure to potential customers. I know many of my students excitedly told their parents about what they tried in school that day!

Moreover, these students were able to benefit from hands-on cooking lessons as well as science and math activities in their school garden. For those living in urban neighborhoods, school and community gardens are much-needed green spaces with multiple purposes including recreation, education, nourishment and community engagement. These growing spaces provide innovative ways to enhance education in required subjects while connecting them to important life skills. Consider how much more effective a math measurement lesson could be if students physically constructed a garden or followed and cooked a recipe instead of simply filling out a worksheet. For students and communities experiencing farm to school firsthand, these efforts are producing lasting, positive results in many ways.

While farm to school enjoys broad, bipartisan support and the nutritional and educational impacts for children are well-documented, there are those who doubt its ability to influence local/regional food economies. However, various governmental, non-profit, and research entities have been studying and modeling the benefits. Since the 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, student meal participation increased 9 percent on average, generating increased revenue for schools through their meal programs. Individual farmers saw an average 5 percent increase in income from F2S sales. They also experienced the benefits associated with market diversification, establishing positive relationships with families and schools and opportunities to establish grower collaboratives and cooperatives to supply institutional markets. Furthermore, communities experienced an increase in local economic activity: a 2011 Oregon health impact assessment study measured for each dollar invested in F2S, an additional $2.16 of local economic activity was stimulated. What is more, this study also measured for every job created by school districts purchasing local food, additional economic activity created another 1.67 jobs.

Overall, farm to school makes sense: kids, farmers and communities experience tremendous wins in health, education, business and economic activity. With October right around the corner, you can be a part of building healthy futures for all children in your neighborhood. Volunteer at a community or school garden, buy directly from your local farmers, shop at farmers' markets and spread the word to your friends, families, peers and co-workers! When using social media, include the hashtags #F2SMonth and #farmtoschool to share how your local youth, teachers, farmers and leaders are celebrating local food connections. Together, we can transform school food one tray at a time.

Professionals working with children: USDA is currently accepting applications for Farm to School grant funding! Learn more here. Deadline is December 8, 2016.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Concrete Jungle Gym," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Thalya Reyes

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