Frequently Asked Questions

About Oklahoma Farm to School

What is Farm to School?

Farm to school is the practice of sourcing local food for schools or preschools and providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, such as school gardens, farm field trips and cooking lessons. Farm to school improves the health of children and communities while supporting local and regional farmers.

How Farm to School Works in Oklahoma
There are many ways to participate in Farm to School events in Oklahoma. Some of the most popular ways to participate are through the statewide program, partnering with local farmers, growing produce for your cafeteria in a school garden or greenhouse, or hosting farm to market days or a local ag day at your school.

Through the statewide program, approved vendors allow schools to pre-order produce for the school year in the spring for the next school year. Products are transported through distribution and producers carry liability insurance and follow good manufacturing practices. Products vary each year depending on what the farmers have and what the schools request. Some popular items are watermelon, cucumbers, yellow, zucchini and butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and kale.

There are many schools across the state working directly with local farmers to bring their produce into schools. See Success Stories and Tools and Resources for more information.

Using school gardens or greenhouses to fuel education about fruits and vegetables through planning, planting, harvesting and selling to schools is another way to bring farm to school. Although not required, this works well for those schools with FFA, 4-H, Business or Horticulture programs. Click here for more information about School Gardens.

How Do Farm-to-School Programs Contribute to Children’s Health?
Farm-to-school programs contribute to children’s health by helping students develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime. According to research, students choose significantly more servings of fruits and vegetables when given the choice of high quality, farm-fresh produce. When children are well nourished, they learn better. During the last 30 years in Oklahoma, the percentage of overweight children (ages 6-11) has quadrupled, while adolescent rates have more than doubled. Doctors blame poor eating habits for this “obesity epidemic.” High sugar, high fat “fast foods” are being blamed. Obesity can contribute to serious lifelong conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure to name a few.

While Oklahoma students are consuming more calories than they need, they are not eating enough servings of fruits and vegetables. Only 27% of Oklahoma children are eating five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetable. Perhaps this is because they do not see their parents eating healthy foods–only 15% of Oklahoma adults eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, ranking the state last in the nation. Because Oklahoma students eat lunch at school and many eat breakfast there as well, schools and universities have a unique opportunity to improve the nutrition of the students they serve.

How Do I Get My Students To Eat Fruits and Vegetables?

Several research studies have shown that youth will eat more fruits and vegetables when they have easy access to a variety of high quality fresh items, often on a salad bar where they have a lot of choice. Students from different socio-economic levels respond similarly. Research and the experience of educators has also established that students are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, especially unfamiliar items, if they participate in fun educational activities featuring these foods.

Farm to School Programs Feature Locally Grown Food. What Does Local Mean?

According to the USDA, “There is no consensus on a definition for ‘local’ or ‘local food systems’ in terms of the geographic distance between production and consumption.” Oklahoma Farm to School includes foods grown within the state. It also includes food products where the main ingredient has been grown in the state.

Is Locally Grown Produce Better Than Produce Grown Elsewhere?

Locally grown produce is likely harvested at peak ripeness and brought to the consumer in the shortest time possible, it is often of the highest quality–attractive to the eye, with pleasant odor, flavor, texture and feel– and if handled properly, contains high nutritive value. People are more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables when they are high quality.

How Widespread Are Farm to School Programs?

Farm to School Programs exist in all 50 states, including Oklahoma. The National Farm to School Network (NFSN) is an information, advocacy and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and preschools. Visit the NFSN at www.farmtoschool.org for more information about Farm to School programs across the country.

How Does the School Lunch Program Work?

The school lunch program is federally funded. School districts are reimbursed for every school meal they sell. Reimbursements fall into three categories—free, reduced, and full price. University food services operate differently and can participate in the farm to school program as well.

How Can Farm to School Complement School Meal Programs?

With the new federal school meal patterns in place, schools must serve more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Locally grown food can be offered as part of the federal school meal breakfast, lunch or smart snack requirements (they will also fit into school supper programs). Many schools feature fresh produce on their salad bar lines or have taste testing opportunities with the students. Locally grown fruits and vegetables can also be a great addition to schools that are approved for the fresh fruit and vegetable program (FFVP).

How Do I Get Started with Farm to School?

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Check out this useful Fact Sheet.
Is There Funding for Schools to Purchase Locally Grown Produce as Part of the Farm to School Program?

School food service directors can purchase locally grown produce with the same federal reimbursement money that they use to buy all their food items. Schools also get a small amount of money to purchase locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables through a special Department of Defense/USDA partnership that is part of the school commodity program.  Some states have added extra funding for fruit & vegetable purchases and some cities are even appropriating extra funds to their school districts.  Some states have set up granting funds to help school districts to purchase locally grown produce.

Which Oklahoma Schools Are Participating in Farm to School?

There are many ways schools are participating in Farm to School across our state. Some have participated from the beginning where others are just getting started. See a list of schools currently participating.

Four school districts (Broken Arrow, Edmond, Shawnee, and Tahlequah) participated in a pilot project in the 2004/2005 school year. In 2005/2006, Tulsa and Muskogee were added to the four. The districts bought Oklahoma-grown seedless watermelons and served them during the first few weeks of school. The Oklahoma Ag-in-the-Classroom program created a fun and educational “watermelon curriculum” to be used in conjunction with the lunchtime watermelon.

In 2006, the program expanded greatly– 35 school districts – a total of 370 schools served Oklahoma-grown watermelons and honeydew melons in the cafeteria as part of the official Oklahoma Farm-to-School Program. Since 2006, over 60 school districts are participating in the statewide program and many school districts are purchasing directly from local growers in their community.

How Can Farm to School Programs Benefit Farmers?

Farmers can diversify their markets by growing a greater diversity of crops that could be sold to schools. Schools represent a steady reliable demand that helps farmers plan their crop planting, harvesting and marketing more effectively. Besides direct revenues, farmers are motivated to participate in these programs as it provides an opportunity to contribute to the health and education of children.  The interaction with students, parents and the community often results in additional sales through farmers markets and other avenues. Farm to School could also spur technology and research to help fruit and vegetable growers in the state become more productive.  It might also benefit Oklahoma food processors and farmers who grow commodity crops. An example is a 100% whole wheat flour made exclusively from Oklahoma grown wheat.

The 2005 pilot program involving just six school districts spent over $20,000 on Oklahoma-grown watermelons. These kinds of local sales keep dollars in Oklahoma and benefit communities across the state.  The 2006 program involved 35 school districts that spent $44,000 on Oklahoma grown watermelons and honeydew melons.  A farm-to-school program could potentially benefit farms of various sizes. Large school districts may be a good market for larger quantities of fruits and vegetables already grown on a commercial scale in Oklahoma, such as watermelons. Smaller-scale local farms could connect with small and medium-sized schools in the state.

Since the Growing Season and the School Year Don’t Completely Coincide, How Can the Farm to School Program Work in Oklahoma?

No one is suggesting that Oklahoma farmers can supply all the fresh fruits and vegetables schools use. We do not have the climate to grow some crops (oranges, for example) that schools want.  There are some crops that schools use or could use that are already grown commercially in the state and can be harvested in the spring or fall. Watermelons are a good example: Oklahoma is ranked #12 nationally in watermelon production, but melons were not always sold in large amounts to Oklahoma schools.  Other summer growing crops can be extended into the fall months like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, sweet corn, sweet potatoes and others.  Many crops that are used on the salad bar grow the best in the spring and the fall through the use of greenhouses or hoop houses making the seasons for those crops extend even further. Summer food programs could also incorporate a wide diversity of Oklahoma-grown fruits and vegetables.

What Oklahoma-Grown Crops Could Be Served in Oklahoma Schools?

Currently the focus is on fresh fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, lettuce, spinach, kale, squash and cucumbers. Other food items include 100% whole wheat flour, created to help schools meet the new whole grain requirements.  Many farmers are happy to work with schools to accommodate their menu needs by growing new fruits and vegetables.

Does Fresh Produce Have to be Inspected by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Before Schools Can Use It?
No inspections are required of fresh, raw produce by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. Processed items must follow food safety procedures established by the county or state. School food service operations should follow the same procedures for washing as they use for all fresh produce.  Click here for Produce Safety Resources.

Schools should write clear, quality specifications for fresh produce and ensure their own inspection upon delivery.

Growers are required to follow safe growing and harvesting practices. Schools with a farm to school plan may work directly with their farmer to further clarify additional food safety requirements. Click here for information on developing school food safety plans.

What Are Some of the Barriers of Farm to School in Oklahoma?
On the farm side, some produce items require immediate cooling after being harvested and many farmers lack this capacity. Farmers need information about what schools want, procurement policy, and in general what they need to do to make ordering from them convenient for food service. On the school side, food service directors are doing the best they can to serve nutritious food on tight budgets. They lack information about how best to connect with farmers and procure farm-fresh foods. Teachers need educational activities and ag/nutrition curriculum to implement. Distribution issues, quality standards and other issues need to be addressed for both sides to effectively connect in a farm-to-school program.

These barriers can be and are being overcome. School districts continue to need information about buying and using locally grown produce along with developing the hands-on learning activities.  Farmers also need information and help in connecting with schools and developing distribution and growing plans.  Oklahoma created the farm to school program to provide a coordinator to work with the schools and the farmers and help with the development of the extra learning activities that include school gardening, farm visits, indoor learning labs, cooking classes along with nutritional and educational curriculum.

How Do I Find a Farmer to Work With?

You can meet farmers at local farmers markets and talk to them about their interest in selling to your school.  You can ask your produce distributor if they are purchasing anything from local growers. Contact the Farm to School Coordinator at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry at (405) 522-2106 or email Katie Strack and she can help you locate a farmer in your area and also connect you with farmers growing for the statewide program.

Why Should Schools Procure Locally?

Farm-to-school programs, which buy from local farmers, bring additional educational opportunities for children by way of farm tours, school gardens, cooking classes, indoor learning labs, farmer in the classroom and curriculum.  Connections with the local farms and agriculture help children better understand the cycle of food such as how and who grows it and how it impacts their bodies, health and the community.  All these experiences complete the educational framework that motivates children towards healthier eating habits that will last a lifetime.  Consumers all over the United States are realizing the benefits of establishing closer ties with the food producers and farmers in their region.  Buying local is good for the economy as it contributes to the growth of small businesses, generates jobs and supports local farming.  It is also good for the environment as food produced locally consumes less fossil fuel for transportation and requires less material for packaging.  Local food is good for your community because you can eat the best quality, seasonal foods that are truly fresh and flavorful and at the same time support a local farmer in your community.

With Oklahoma embracing a comprehensive farm-to-school program, it will be in the forefront of innovative efforts to address childhood obesity and improve children’s health for the better while creating many rural economic opportunities.

What do school officials and students think about the program?

School food service directors reported that the melons were of high quality– “The best she ever ate,” was how Broken Arrow food service director Jill Poole put it. Another school reported saying “you would have thought we were handing out dollar bills! The kids loved the melons!”  The melons were delivered in good condition, in a timely manner. By all accounts, the melons were extremely popular with students, teachers, and food service. Several schools received positive media coverage for the farm-to-school watermelons.

Do Oklahoma School Districts Need More Assistance to Implement Farm to School?
In June 2006, the Oklahoma legislature responded to this need by establishing an Oklahoma Farm to School program by providing a coordinator located at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to work with expanding the program to more schools, include more farmers, provide more produce items and help develop more food and nutrition hands-on learning opportunities and curriculum.  The Oklahoma State Department of Education Child Nutrition Program has initiated educational outreach to school food service directors about Farm to School and supports the program. For more tips about how to implement Farm to School, click here.