PRYOR, OK —
As it enters its fourth year, Kevin Concannon, undersecretary to the USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, says he is encouraged by the success of the Farm to School program.
Nationwide, schools have begun to purchase locally grown and harvested food as well as provide accompanying activities and curriculum emphasizing the importance of farming and nutrition. This movement is known as the Farm to School program.
The United States Department of Agriculture supports the program's efforts including research, training, technical assistance and grants, according to its website, and every year USDA awards up to $5 million in grants to help schools connect with local producers and teach kids where their food comes from.
“We're encouraged by the efforts thus far and inspired by the creative approaches being taken by some schools,” said Concannon, using the example of schools launching campaigns to inspire students to cut out junk food and eat more fruits and vegetables.
“Fruits and veggies are the part of the diet to which we least conform. It's the area we need to do better at, as Americans. Schools must provide fruits and veggies every day,” said Concannon. He said the fruits and veggies have to be bought, so why not buy them locally?
The local food ranges from fresh produce, to the wheat for pizza crust, beans for chili, turkey in sandwiches and cheese for quesadillas.
Concannon said the USDA provides week-long training programs for schools on how to safely purchase locally grown items as well as how to grade produce.
“It's part of an ongoing effort to bring locally grown items to schools as safely as possible,” said Concannon.
He said USDA has interviewed farmers and growers to ensure that both their needs and the needs of the schools are met.
“Essentially we're making sure things get to the school in a way they can use them. For example, we don’t drop off a truck load of squash at the schools. They don't, for the most part, have the means to peel them,” said Concannon.
According to the first-ever Farm to School census, during the 2011-2012 school year participating schools purchased and served over $350 million in local food. The census reports approximately 561 public school districts are participating in the program. The Oklahoma school districts that bought local products in that school year spent an estimated $42,016,053 on school food, with $5,452,803 of that directed locally, according to the census.
Locust Grove schools spent 60 percent of their total food budget locally. No other Mayes County schools were represented on the census.
“Schools have used the occasion to feature a particular food. We've heard from grocers who ask to be told ahead of time what the featured item will be because they see such an increase in demand,” said Concannon, who said it is as much about the food as the curriculum.
“We're seeing great variation across the country. Schools are incorporating the Farm to School program into math, earth science and even art programs. The best schools try to incorporate it in a variety of ways,” said Concannon.
He said success relies heavily on the ingenuity of the teachers, who he thinks are stepping up and implementing the teachings in some creative ways.
“I heard about a pre-K class where students were asked to bring in supermarket sales flyers. They cut out the pictures and placed them in the correct section of the My Plate diagram,” said Concannon. “These students are learning to identify fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains from a very young age.”
He said time and again USDA is given examples of the necessity of the program.
“I was at a dairy council in Iowa when a lunch-line worker told me about a student who picked up a plum and asked her what the heck it was,” Concannon said. “This is crucial even in agricultural states.”
Concannon said it’s about connecting students, showing them where their food comes from, and enticing them to eat more of those locally grown, healthier items.
Concannon said school gardens play a key role in the program.
“These gardens are a laboratory to educate kids on where their food comes from,” said Concannon. Pryor, Chouteau and Locust Grove all have school gardens and actively participate in the program.
The influx of fresh produce ties in to the recently updated school menu requirements.
When asked about the complaint by students and parents that students simply aren't getting enough food to eat at school, Concannon said he heard the complaint a little in the beginning, but not much now, four years into the program.
“When we looked at calorie counts we say they are close to what schools were serving before,” said Concannon.
In regard to students in rigorous athletics or students working in physically demanding agricultural fields, Concannon said schools were encouraged to offer these students additional fruits and vegetables as a snack.