The popularity of farm-to-school programs that put locally grown food on cafeteria trays has exploded in recent years — so much so that the federal agency in charge of school lunches is giving them a new stamp of approval.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the programs have become so popular so fast that her agency doesn’t have solid figures on how many schools are serving their students vegetables, fruits and meat grown by local farmers.
“We know it’s just snowballing,” Merrigan said in an interview with The Associated Press before her appearance Tuesday at the School Nutrition Association convention in Nashville, Tenn.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture used the convention to release a new report on what works in farm-to-school programs, what doesn’t and what the agency can do to help them work better. The report was put together by a USDA team that traveled to 15 school districts across the country and comes as officials, including first lady Michelle Obama, are promoting the importance of healthier food for kids.
“First, it is about bringing fresh locally grown food into school cafeterias,” Merrigan said. “So there’s the yummy factor, the good nutrition factor. ... Number two, we believe it provides good market opportunities for local producers, particular those midsize farmers that are struggling to make a go of it. This is a real opportunity for them to increase the bottom line in their farming operations. So it’s about rural economic development.”
Locally, the Emporia USD 253 school district has started using fresh produce in its school lunches. Students at the end of the school year ate fresh lettuce produced locally.
Gary Janssen, a local producer who lives near Emporia, said more producers are needed to give schools as well as area restaurants fresh vegetables and fruits.
If a producer would like to contact Janssen, he can be reached at (620) 342-5058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
USD 253 also received federal grant money to receive fresh fruits and vegetables.