Local Foods: From Farm to School

September 2012

Issue: According to the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, more than one third of Iowa’s third, fourth, and fifth grade students are overweight or at risk for being overweight, which results in younger people developing chronic diseases at earlier ages. Schools have great potential to curb the trend of childhood obesity, because they are not only places where children spend a large portion of their waking hours, but also the public tables at which many children eat one, two, or even three meals a day.

Farm to School ParticipantsExtension’s Response

By offering healthy food choices, as well as bringing nutrition education into the classroom, schools can directly impact the health and well-being of Iowa’s children.

The Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative adopted Farm to School to help ensure that school district policies and practices support healthy living of children, families, and community members. The national Farm to School network aims to connect school children with their agricultural roots and provide healthier school meals and nutrition education, with more than 2,000 national programs across the United States.

The Northeast Iowa Farm to School Chapter is unique because efforts are spearheaded in school districts across six counties, including Decorah, Howard-Winneshiek, Postville, Oelwein, Starmont, and Turkey Valley. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach staff and the Northeast Iowa Farm to School core team collaborate to support regional farm to school efforts at these six pilot sites. This partnership is responsible for providing ongoing technical and financial support for teacher workshops, cross-age teaching, food service trainings, and school gardens.

Farm to School is an example of efforts that are committed to improving Iowans’ health and wellbeing. Through the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, individuals, families, businesses, faith-based organizations, not-for-profits, and the public sector are working together in community-focused efforts to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation by 2016. To measure progress, the initiative uses the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which tracks the well-being of U.S. residents throughout the year. The scientific survey measures six domains of well-being, including healthy behaviors and basic access to enough money for food and shelter.

Impact: Building Knowledge and Skills in School Food Service Employees

ISU Extension and Outreach provides technical assistance to school food service staff across Allamakee, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Howard, and Winneshiek counties. These programming efforts address needs expressed by school food service staff.

ISU Extension and Outreach is assisting school food service staff in networking and developing a market base with local producers for the purchase of local foods, as well as helping them understand compliance information on procuring local produce, including specification and bidding procedures that meet USDA guidelines for reimbursable school meals.

Extension and Outreach specialists share the nutritional benefits of using local foods and educate food service staff on preparing and serving specific local produce with recipe taste testing and demonstrations. Food service employees also learn how to write specifications for local produce, indicating geographic preference and other criteria to be in compliance with purchasing requirements.

School food service employees have been open to learning how to implement not only farm to school efforts, but also food safety education.

Cindy Baumgartner, ISU Extension and Outreach nutrition and health specialist

  • As a result, 18 of the 20 districts (90 percent) in the six-county region are now sourcing local foods. Last year they purchased $14,400 of food from local producers.
  • Six schools tracked their school garden yield and reported 4,300 lbs. of produce were harvested at a wholesale value of $5,800.
  • Nineteen school food service employees participated in ServSafe certified food safety training, with an exam pass rate of 94.7 percent.
  • School food service employees purchased various pieces of small equipment or utensils — such as slicers, knives, ice paddles, chill sticks, and food thermometers — to more efficiently and safely prepare local produce.

School food service employees are eager to continue receiving extension education and participating in collaborative efforts. Their district school wellness teams, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative Farm to School core team, and ISU Extension and Outreach support healthy environments where children grow and thrive and to create long-term change that makes the healthy choice the easy choice.

Impact: Teaching Students about Local Foods

Another part of the Farm to School program involves engaging high school students as farm-to-school educators in the classroom. Through cross-age teaching, these older students educate younger students about local foods. ISU Extension and Outreach staff, Luther College staff, and AmeriCorps interns prepared a series of lessons about specific foods. The older students practice a lesson and then go into the classroom to teach it. They lead the younger students in a physical activity and a hands-on activity to learn about the specific local food, and then the younger students get to taste the food.

We create a bond between those younger students and the older students. … We’re finding that the younger students are really captivated and enthralled and develop a really neat relationship with those students in their school.

Teresa Wiemerslage, ISU Extension communications and program coordinator

Youth educator Will Kuhner said, “You can see all the kids, they’re eating the food and they’re smiling. A lot of them have a new found liking for that certain food.”

Added youth educator Nicole Meirick, “I love helping the little kids. I feel like they’re really getting something out of it, and they’re learning new things. I like bringing that to them.”

“We create a bond between those younger students and the older students,” said Teresa Wiemerslage, an ISU Extension communications and program coordinator working with the Northeast Iowa Farm to School program. “By going in every month and having that interaction and that relationship with an older youth role model, we’re finding that the younger students are really captivated and enthralled and develop a really neat relationship with those students in their school.”

For more information about Farm to School in Northeast Iowa, contact
Cindy Baumgartner, nutrition and health specialist, cbaum@iastate.edu
Teresa Wiemerslage, Region 4 communications and program coordinator, wiemer@iastate.edu
Lynette Hauser, Region 4 youth coordinator, lmanders@iastate.edu