AMES, Iowa – Helping children make healthier food choices is the goal of farm to school programming nationwide. According to the National Farm to School Network, more than 23.6 million students in 42,500 US schools currently participate in farm to school programming, which includes the creation of school gardens, classroom education on agriculture, food, and nutrition and procurement of fresh local foods from area farmers to serve in the school cafeteria.
With more than 30 million kids relying on school lunch every school day, and 12 million eating school breakfasts, that’s a lot of opportunity to have a healthy impact on children – and they need it. Current statistics show that one in three American children is overweight or obese. One third are at risk of developing diabetes in their lifetime; for kids of color, that figure is one in two.
A growing body of research reveals that kids will choose fresh fruits and vegetables as part of their meal, or as a snack, if they are regularly offered -- especially if they helped grow the food. Increasing fresh food availability at school can benefit student health, community engagement around local foods and the profitability of local farmers.
The Iowa legislature created the Iowa Farm to School Program in 2007, providing funding to link schools and children with local farmers and organizations to offer fresh, locally grown food and nutrition based educational opportunities. Since then, 30 schools in Iowa have formed farm to school chapters, and others participate in related activities throughout the year, such as the Great Apple Crunch in October or after school snack programs.
Teresa Wiemerslage, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach regional coordinator for food systems in northeast Iowa, reported recently that schools in her area purchased more than $63,400 in food from local farms in the 2015-16 school year. Fourteen school districts contributed numbers to the survey, which is conducted annually by ISU Extension and Outreach on behalf of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative.
“These schools should be proud of their achievements,” said Wiemerslage. “Not only have they sourced high quality products for local school children, but they have invested in the farmers who support our towns and schools.”
Carolyn Scherf, local food coordinator for Dubuque County Extension and Outreach, reported that in 2015 the Dubuque Community School District began serving students fresh local fruits and vegetables in school lunches, redirecting $2,237 food dollars to local business over a two-week period. During 2016-17, they have budgeted over $7,600 for fresh fruits and vegetables, plus $4,700 on local frozen vegetables. On October 6, Dubuque schools joined Des Moines public schools in a Midwest Meal celebration -- an entire meal featuring dairy, protein and produce from the region.
October is national farm to school month, and schools around the state are celebrating with events in the classroom, garden, and lunchroom. For more information on farm to school programming, visit the National Farm to School Network at www.farmtoschool.org, the Iowa Farm to School Program, FoodCorps Iowa, and the ISU Extension and Outreach Local Foods Program.
PHOTO: Students at Hillis Elementary School in Des Moines conducted a worm hunt as part of their locally grown food and nutrition based education.