Last fall, a group of Clark County fourth graders stood before a sprawling field of carrots at the 78th Street Heritage Farm in Vancouver. One student surveyed the sea of thriving green plants and asked, “Where are the carrots? I don’t see any carrots!” When a plant was pulled up, the child was amazed to find the carrots were hiding underground.
Sandy Brown, nutrition faculty at the Washington State University Clark County Extension reports this reaction is not uncommon among youth who visit the farm.
“Kids nowadays don’t know where food comes from. They think milk comes in boxes, and pears come from cans. They have never seen a cucumber growing on a vine, and they think carrots grow on bushes. Farm tours and education help kids to connect with food and the environment,” Brown said.
Food system education
The WSU Clark County Extension has used farm fieldtrips to support nutrition education for students since 2014. That year, four groups of young people visited Heritage Farm. By 2015, eight groups of 385 kids participated in “farm to fork” field day events.
Next year, a two-year, $100,000 USDA Farm to School grant will allow Clark County Public Health to partner with the WSU Clark County Extension to build on the farm to fork model. The result will be replicable field guide and the opportunity for children attending five additional schools in the Vancouver Public Schools district to get their hands dirty while learning about the local food system.
“Food system education is only one benefit of farm to school programs. Farm to school is also an investment in the health of the local agricultural economy,” said Melissa Martin, farm to school program coordinator at Clark County Public Health. “The farm to school program connects farms to new large-scale customers. That is a critical link for our region’s farmers and food producers.”
Clark County Public Health will use the farm to school grant to help schools expand the number and variety of regionally-sourced food products used in their nutrition services departments by defining a regional procurement area and tracking regional purchases, Martin said.
In Clark County, expanding local and regional procurement is a key goal for Vancouver Public Schools. Mari Ovens, director of nutrition services at VPS, said, “Farm to school supports our school district goal to incorporate even more regionally produced foods in our menus while providing a valuable educational experience for our students.”
“This summer, nutrition service staff will get an orientation to the grant and learn about the value of local products through farm fieldtrips and meet-the-supplier interactions,” Martin added. “Future trainings may include culinary trainings to help staff incorporate newly sourced regional foods into their menus.”
“Farmer in the Classroom” presentations, taste tests of new foods in the cafeteria, and point-of-sale marketing to promote fresh, local foods on the cafeteria line will also be part of the project activities. For example, VPS elementary school cafeterias will highlight regional produce though a “Farm Fresh Friday” program that that will be implemented in the 2016-17 school year.
Will a farm to school program significantly impact the local agricultural economy? According to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census, the answer is yes. The census documented the positive impact of farm to school programs across the country. It found that schools with a farm to school program invested 105 percent more in local purchases in 2014 than they had the year before. In 2014, this represented nearly $800 million in local food from farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food processors and manufacturers.
Alan Melnick, health officer and director of Clark County Public Health, sees farm to school as an effective way to support healthy communities.
“We are excited to have this opportunity to partner with Vancouver Public Schools and WSU Clark County Extension to support local agriculture, engage students in hands-on learning, and improve access to healthy, regional food,” Melnick said.
The nationwide farm to school program began in 2005. Since then, farm to school programs have been established in at least 42 percent of school districts across the U.S., according to a 2015 USDA census.
“Helping to bring our partners in agriculture, schools, and food distribution together to promote the health and wellness of our local community is part of our public health mission,” Martin said.