Starting a Farm to School Program

While waiting to pay for their slice of pizza, Hi-C or plate of french fries, this is what the students have to contemplate.

Farm to School Programs in the U.S. are becoming more and more common; there are currently several proposed bills that provide authorization or funding for farm to school programs. These programs are all about improving school food, supporting sustainable food systems, and educating about the relationships between food, health, culture and the environment. The trend in school lunches has been following the way of the fast-food industry: cheap & easy. Driving down costs and reducing preparation time may help the bottom line, but has been wreaking havoc on our students’ waist lines. French fries and pizza seem to be the most common lunch found on trays in cafeterias across the nation. Sadly, the American School in El Salvador has been following that trend too. Sales have certainly gone up: it’s hard to resist the tantalizing aroma of french fries and pizza, and the shiny packages of cookies practically jump off the rack into students’ hands while they wait to pay for their sugar-loaded Hi-C Iced Tea drink.

Farm to School programs seek to address the problems caused by this trend. These problems include public health issues, academic and behavior problems, as well as disparities in economics, the community, and the environment. A variety of avenues that are all interconnected at a school can be employed to begin a farm to school program with multi-stakeholder buy-in. These avenues include wellness policies, classroom integration, financial, procurement, professional development, and even waste management. Making the farm to school program a school-wide initiative will help ensure long-term viability and short-term acceptance. However, it might be difficult to get all of these different avenues to merge nicely, especially if you are at a large school and are dealing with very different entities.

The best way to begin is to start with your area of interest and expertise. Are you a teacher? An administrator? The director of dining services? Start looking at solutions through the avenues you are familiar with. Then find an ally, or as many allies as possible. These allies could include parents, teachers, school board members, or any other school staff and even outside businesses or farms. Once you have established allies, next identify the key people you will need to deal with to address the first area you’ve chosen to tackle. Find out who makes the decision about where the food is purchased from, who designs the menus, or who incorporates new material into the curriculum? Depending on the avenue you’ve chosen, the person will be different. But find out who is making the decisions for that area. Lastly, clearly define your first project: set achievable goals, don’t try sweeping changes unless you have unfettered support from all stakeholders. Realistically, you will likely have to start with one piece at a time: replacing one or a few products with locally grown items, for example.

It’s important to celebrate small successes. Maybe replacing one or two foods in the cafeteria seems like just a tiny drop in the bucket, but if you are able to demonstrate what a smooth process getting those one or two items onto the menu was and if you can show all the benefits, then you’ve laid the foundation for further progress. I am currently going through these steps here in El Salvador, and I can testify that it is a slow process, mostly because those of us that are the driving force are teachers, which means the free time we have to devote to this is scarce. But because we all are passionate about food, about good food that’s grown close to home and without unnecessary chemicals, because we care about what our students are consuming each day – we find the time. And celebrate the small successes, like the thumbs-up we just received from the General Director and President of the Board!

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