KIRKSVILLE, Mo. – The local food movement is going back to school.
Farm to School, an initiative of University of Missouri Extension’s Missouri Farm to Institution Project, hopes to connect school districts and farmers to put locally grown fruits and vegetables on children’s plates.
“This whole farm-to-school movement is really taking off right now, with a lot of interest and a lot of people trying to find ways to make it work in their community,” said Bill McKelvey, Missouri Farm to Institution project coordinator.
Bringing local asparagus, apples or squash to the plate might be more complicated than some would think. Most school districts plan meals more than a year in advance, and farmers can find it hard to guarantee that they can provide enough vegetables or fruit to meet the needs of districts. Conversely, farmers need to know where they will sell their produce before they put their seeds in the ground.
One solution could be creating local food distribution networks. That’s what Randy Wood did. The St. Louis man joined six other local farmers to buy a grocery store, which allows them to pool their local produce; they fill the gaps with shipped-in produce when they can’t meet orders.
At a Farm to School workshop at Truman State University in January, Wood spoke to farmers about hurdles they can encounter when selling produce to schools.
“Part of the problem with this local movement is that individual farmers don’t produce enough to make distribution efficient,” Wood said. “They will have to get together and aggregate their product in a location, so that one truck or one delivery can transport to the buyer.”
William Erker, who recently became Truman State University’s local foods coordinator for Sodexo Dining Services, noted that buying local foods can be messier than dealing with a regional food company like Kohl Wholesale or a national one like Sysco.
“A large, national distribution company can give you exactly what you want, in the quantity you want, when you want it, in the exact shape and size you want it, but that’s not the rhythm of nature,” Erker said. “You start to learn why the systems that exist do exist. It’s because they’re streamlined or simple, but locally produced food is going to be fresher or more nutritious when it’s eaten that day or that week.”
Local foods options may soon become more attractive to schools. Proposed USDA school lunch standards would double the amount of fruits and vegetables offered to schoolchildren. The updates would establish calorie limits for meals, and reduce the amount of salt and saturated fats in school lunches. It would also establish a new red/orange vegetable subgroup required to balance meals. The public have until April 13 to comment before the policy is enacted.
Farmers and schools also will be able to apply for $5 million per year in USDA farm-to-school grants beginning in 2012. Schools, farmers and nonprofit groups can receive up to $100,000 to buy equipment to better process local food, increase farmers’ access to institutional markets and provide nutrition education. By 2020 the program will distribute $40 million to deserving farm-to-school projects.
“I think it’s going to open up marketing opportunities as food service directors begin to connect with local farmers,” said Lynn Heuss, Midwest co-coordinator for the National Farm to School Network. “We’re not trying to take all the folks who do conventional soybean and corn and make them quit farming those crops, but we are saying that folks who want to get back on the land and put two acres in garlic, 10 acres in carrots and potatoes or 20 acres in tomatoes should have a place at the table.”
Heuss thinks this could boost local and state economies. She says that her home state of Iowa imports 86 percent of its food – at a cost of more than $14 billion – and just retaining some of that money means a lot of income and expansion of the tax base.
Farm to School workshops will be held Feb. 16 in St. Louis and March 30 in Springfield. There also will be a teleconference on March 2. For more information on workshop registration and the Farm to School program, see http://hcrc.missouri.edu/farmtoschool.