Farmers and schools have several things in common. They both plant seeds and nurture growth, and with some patience and hard work, can reap bountiful harvests. They both rely on experience gained from years past, on sufficient planning and on consistent effort to ensure the greatest possible yields. The most successful ones are those able to adapt to changing environments, creating practical and innovative solutions as new problems and opportunities arise.
Oklahoma has many examples of successful farmers and schools throughout the state. However, both farmers and schools are facing some serious challenges today and in the years to come. For farmers, rising fuel and input costs and lack of labor will likely continue to limit profitability.
In Oklahoma, the average annual net farm income for all farms is $8,220 and sixty-three percent of our farms have annual sales less than $10,000. Yet, we import over 90% of our fresh produce items which have been and could be grown commercially in our state. Equally concerning, nearly two-thirds of our state’s farmers are over the age of 54 and only six percent are below the age of 35.
Meanwhile, schools are filled with children and adolescents facing obesity and chronic health problems at rates never before seen. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes sometime during their lifetime.
Besides not getting enough physical activity, most public health authorities agree that children (and adults) are eating too many foods and drinks high in fat and sugar and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. In Oklahoma, only 16% of our students eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
So how do we help students choose to eat more nutritious foods? A growing number of schools are finding that serving fresh from local farms and providing students with meaningful hands-on experiences can go a long way towards improving healthy food choices. These Farm-to-School initiatives are demonstrating that students will eat more nutritiously when offered a variety of fresh high quality foods. In many of these projects, salad bars are commonly used for featuring locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Increasing school cafeteria use of locally produced foods can also have numerous economic benefits as farmers gain access to new markets and food dollars are kept closer to home. Many farm-to-school advocates also consider local purchasing as a way to improve food security and in-turn, homeland security, by shortening the distance food travels and reducing dependence upon foods coming far from home.
Oklahoma currently has 540 school districts, with 1844 schools serving students more than 167,000 breakfasts and over 375,000 lunches every day of the school year. Most schools offer one serving of fruit at breakfast and two or more servings of fruits and/or vegetables at lunch. If half the schools in our state featured one serving of Oklahoma grown cantaloupes at one meal, on one day of the year, this would require nearly 5000 melons. Or, one serving of Oklahoma grown tomatoes for one meal in half our schools would likewise require over 18,000 pounds of fresh whole tomatoes. The potential size of the market could be substantial.
And while it is true that much of the school year doesn’t coincide with normal harvest periods for many crops, schools represent a market which should encourage growers to look at non-traditional planting dates and other cultural practices for modifying the season. For field crops, season extension is a practice worth noting. Information on season extension is available in the growers section of this website.
Farm-to-school efforts are taking place in over 2035 school districts in at least 39 states, including Oklahoma. Our state first began looking into the matter in 2002, when the Oklahoma Food Policy Council surveyed all 540 school food service directors in the state. The survey received a 69% response rate and of that number, over two-thirds of the respondents expressed interest in purchasing locally produced foods.
Following the encouraging survey results, the Food Policy Council helped implement pilot programs in 2004 and 2005, featuring seedless watermelons grown near Hinton, Oklahoma and served at 144 schools in six districts. Agency partnerships between the State Departments of Human Services; Education; and Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture were vital to the pilot’s success. The USDA, the U.S. Department of Defense and Oklahoma State University also played important roles.
The successful pilot led to the introduction and passage in 2006 of state legislation titled the “Oklahoma Farm to School Program Act”. The Act formally establishes the Oklahoma Farm to School Program, designating the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry as the lead agency. As such, it makes available a program administrator to provide program development, leadership, conduct workshops and offer technical assistance for farmers, food service directors, processors and distributors, emphasizing the purchase of locally and regionally produced foods. The Department established this farm to school website for assisting schools and farmers wanting more information on the program and fresh food procurement.
The Oklahoma legislation also recognizes that successful farm to school programs often feature activities providing students with hands-on learning opportunities. They can include farm visits, school gardens, indoor learning labs, tasting and cooking demonstrations along with educational and nutritional curriculum. We look forward to our continued work with our existing partners and welcome our new partners in the future. Oklahoma Farm to School helps make it “Cool To Eat In School”!