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FROM FARM TO SCHOOL: Planting a food story

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THE CONCEPT of “farm to school” burst on the scene in the mid-’90s, when a handful of programs sprouted in California and Florida. Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard was one such, and it transformed an inner-city schoolyard, a sea of blacktop, into an extensive, verdant garden that in turn transformed children’s lives. Responding to those successful initiatives, in 2001 the US Department  of Agriculture’s Small Farms/School Meals Initiative cultivated similar projects in Kentucky, Iowa and Oregon. Now there are more than 2,000 programs nationwide.

Columbia County’s Farm to School program may seem new, but it’s been developing over some years. The concept of food as something that, voila! magically appears only to satisfy requirements of palatability and low cost, is, we hope, entering its twilight among the broader population. In our schools, that outdated food concept has been a subject of enormous concern and discussion, and our teachers and school food services had been keeping a sharp eye on the various farm-to-school efforts elsewhere that were improving, among other things, children’s health and nutrition.

We like to think our county residents are well fed. To large degree, that’s true, although plenty of children go hungry once they leave their schools; last year, volunteers established a Backpack Program, supported by private contributions, to distribute food from Albany’s Regional Food Bank to food-insecure schoolchildren.

But well-fed doesn’t mean well-nourished with the best foods to support growing bodies and minds. Too much of the growing we’re all doing is around the waistline, and it’s not from too much high-quality, nourishing food. In the case of our children, say hello to high blood pressure, joint problems and adult-onset diabetes.

This is not to say that school food doesn’t meet stringent nutritional standards, or that those standards are low, or that our lunch ladies and gents aren’t dedicated to serving good food. They are. But they operate under very challenging constraints. Each district’s food service operates financially as a stand-alone unit, deriving all its funds for food and for staff from its meal revenue (some of which comes from the feds and the state). For the most part, there’s no tapping into the school budget; cafeterias generally are on their own.

Former Health Commissioner Richard Daines had issued schools and others a call to action, saying, “Too many New Yorkers experience poor health as a result of obesity, tobacco use, and lack of preventive health services.” In 2007, the Healthcare Consortium’s Kids in Motion program applied for and won a state Department of Health grant under its division of Childhood Diseases.

Via school wellness committees, Kids in Motion embarked on a plan to prevent obesity in schoolchildren, through increased activity and better nutrition. Nutrition can be a tough sell to kids unless they feel connected to the food appearing before them, in which case they positively relish it. So, rather than settling for anonymous, soulless food grown by someone else someplace else, Kids in Motion began work to connect kids with food and to place healthy food front and center. How? By introducing students to local farmers or by having students take a hand in its production. Voila! Nutritious food with a story. Kids eat it and grow healthier.

In this agricultural county, where farming revenues top all others, the reality that schoolchildren’s food is mostly imported from elsewhere is truly ironic if not understandable. Kids in Motion is working to change that and to make kids healthier. It’s a huge challenge. Progress has been gradual but steady, and its pace is picking up. More about how schools are cultivating nutritious food with a story will appear in upcoming columns, but if you want it now, visit kidsinmotiononline.org or call us at 518 822-8820, ext. 317.

To contact Virginia Martin, Farm to School consultant for the Kids in Motion program of the Healthcare Consortium, email virginia@columbiahealthnet.org.

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