FROM FARM TO SCHOOL: Farm to School initiative looks back and ahead

SLOW BUT STEADY: That’s a fair way to describe recent years’ progress toward realizing the “farm-to-school” benefits sought by increasing numbers of county residents.

In our county developing a viable farm-to-school initiative has been a goal of the Healthcare Consortium’s Kids in Motion program, which works to reduce the incidence of obesity in children grades kindergarten through eight. Kids in Motion was born in 2007, when the Consortium was awarded a state Department of Health grant. Its first thrust was to do what its name says: get kids in motion, which it continues to do by sponsoring programs and purchasing equipment to get kids away from the televisions and computers and into high-energy activities that they can have fun doing.

But too-low activity levels aren’t solely responsible for obesity. Nutrition’s role is equally important, and Kids in Motion named “farm to school” the other half of its obesity-prevention drive. It makes sense: our county derives more revenues from agriculture than any other source.

A Kids in Motion “partnership” provided a centralized venue for representatives of all six local public school districts, teachers and administrators, where they could share ideas for new activities and for accessing more nutritional food, as well as apply for program funding.

Implementing the farm-to-school initiative proved more complicated than getting kids up and moving.  So the partnership brought together individuals and organizations including Cornell Cooperative Extension, Columbia County Bounty, Columbia Land Conservancy, Hudson Valley Agribusiness Corporation, Chatham Real Food Market Co-op, Hawthorne Valley Farm’s Farmscape Ecology Project and Columbia County Planning, as well as local farmers. They hashed out notions of what a farm-to-school initiative could realistically accomplish.

One major challenge, which remains unresolved, entailed finding an efficient means of transporting and delivering local food. Another is the out-of-sync nature of the county’s growing season, which is at its height when schools are not in session.

But real progress is being made. Every school district in the county is implementing “farm to school” in one fashion or another. Every school’s food service uses fresh local produce–in some cases it’s mostly local fruit, like apples and peaches, and in some cases it extends to greens and beyond. For many of the schools, Kids in Motion has purchased the equipment that’s needed for staffers to prepare fresh produce the way the kitchens of 50 years ago used to. The program has purchased salad bars, too, which have become extremely popular with hungry students.

Adopting back-to-the-future practices means food-service staffs need to learn new skills, or learn the old skills anew. Their directors need to adapt kitchens to the different kinds of challenges that simple, locally sourced foods pose when planning menus and allocating staff time. Workshops with one Greene County director who’s done some trailblazing of his own are helping. Chef Paul Ventura, from Greenville Central Schools, has been working with staff at Taconic Hills, and the plan is to extend that opportunity to other schools.

Kids in Motion school-to-farm visits have been popular among 2nd and 3rd grade teachers and students over the past two years. They gave young students a sense of where their food comes from, and the farmers at Love Apple, Katchkie, Fix and other farms are always thrilled to welcome students.

What’s more feasible is to make the school the farm.

School gardens are one way that’s happening. Thanks to Kids in Motion funding, Ichabod Crane Primary School has an “Edible Wall,” an indoor garden that will produce four harvests a year and opportunities for learning about food and its cultivation while adding fresh greens to cafeteria offerings.

Every district in the county now has at least one school garden where subjects from agriculture to zoology can be taught. A new independent support organization called School Partners in Gardening has provided ideas and encouragement across the county.

Efforts like those pay off when students start eating what they’ve grown–“even if it is green.” The “know your food” mantra comes to life when young people eat foods new to them because they grew, harvested or cooked them.

The goal of the Kids in Motion program and the farm-to-school initiative to decrease childhood obesity while improving student nutrition was addressed in March at a full-day symposium called Inspiring a Food & Fitness Revolution: Addressing Childhood Obesity in the Mid-Hudson Region held at Columbia Greene Community College.

Working from the foundation now established, the Columbia County Farm to School initiative continues to find ways to bring the farm to the school and vice versa. The full report on two years of the farm-to-school initiative is available online at www.kidsinmotiononline.org. For information, contact Kids in Motion program coordinator Kari Rieser at 518 822-8820 or at .

 

 

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