By DOUG GRAVES
MONTICELLO, Ky. — Students, parents and teachers in Kentucky are discovering locally grown foods are accessible, affordable, nutritious and tasty. University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service members such as Glen Roberts of Wayne County are hard at work getting those fresh fruits and vegetables into the state’s schools.
Roberts, a Wayne County agriculture and natural resources extension agent and commercial vegetable grower, approached the Wayne County School Board and high school FFA in 2011 about allowing agriculture students to raise a garden. The program (Farm to School) has been successful and is catching on in other counties.
“There are so many ways of doing this,” Roberts said. “Ours is unique in that we have the FFA kids doing the harvesting for the food that eventually makes its way into the schools.”
The first year, the garden was a half-acre and provided food for the Wayne County Schools’ summer feeding program and the fall semester. This year, they expanded the garden to one acre and planted it slightly later so the students could harvest the crops when they returned to school in the fall. It included cantaloupes, cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, peppers, pumpkins, tomatoes and cauliflower.
“It’s kind of out of season for most people’s gardening thought process,” Roberts said. “This is showing them that it can be done this time of the year instead of just two and three months in the summer.”
According to him, there are several efforts across the state whereby schools purchase fruits and vegetables from local farmers. “That’s been going on for quite a while,” Roberts said, “but this allows a school to work independently.
“The costs are seed, fertilizer and chemicals bought with local taxpayer money, but the schools get that back in terms of food and then some. It’s a good thing from that standpoint.
In addition, the students get fresh produce and help spice up their school lunch menu.”
Roberts said the garden’s bounty has been more than the high school cafeteria could handle, and it has shared the extra produce with the elementary and middle schools.
“I can’t tell you how important this program is and what a valuable resource the school garden has been to our school foodservice,” said Karen Gibson, Wayne County Schools district foodservice director. “You can’t get this taste from a purchased item, because many times the produce you purchased from a vendor travels thousands of miles before you ever get it.”
She added food safety is another important aspect of the school garden. “Our school garden is a safety net for us, because we know how our food is grown,” she said. “I can be assured that our produce is being grown with high safety standards.”
Jackie Walters, University of Kentucky extension specialist for food and nutrition, serves as a member of a statewide Farm to School Task Force. The task force developed a curriculum and resource guide that became available earlier this year.
“We want to help increase fruit and vegetable intake among kids and help them understand that sustainable, local agriculture is good for the community,” Walters said. “Everyone benefits when you buy locally.”
Additionally, Walters helped personnel in the Kentucky Department of Public Health disseminate funding they received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Farm to School programs across the state.
In 2011, the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) Obesity Prevention Program awarded $54,000 in grants to several Kentucky counties as part of the Farm to School program.