By DOUG GRAVES
GRANVILLE, Ohio — Twenty years ago there was no real connection between the farm and local school systems, except for the small cartons of milk in the school cafeteria. But thanks to a national push for fresh, healthy foods, local farmers and other food producers are able to tap into Ohio’s school lunchrooms.
Here, the national Farm to School effort is spearheaded by Ohio State University extension and operates in districts throughout the state. In fact, Ohio has such projects and partnerships in all 88 counties. Leadership of the program transitioned from the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) to extension in 2011.
Chuck Dilbone, business operations director for the Granville School District in central Ohio, has experienced the benefits of Farm to School. He buys organic potatoes from a local Amish farmer and procures local vegetables and apples from other growers.
“We realized our cafeteria didn’t match our wellness policy,” he said. “We wanted to provide our students with fresh-cooked meals with local products. Before the Farm to School initiative, only 22 percent of our students purchased school meals. We now serve 65 percent of our kids. I firmly believe every school district can do this to some extent.”
The program also seeks to address the issue of child obesity and its impacts on health and the economy. According to the ODA, nearly 30 percent of Ohioans are obese and the state spends more than $3 billion a year treating the health-related consequences of this epidemic.
In addition to providing young people with fresh food and supporting local farmers, the Farm to School program helps students understand where their food comes from and how food choices affect their health, environment and community.
“Farm to School can help support local farmers, strengthen local economies and create improved nutrition behaviors that will be sustained by encouraging youth to value the nutritional content of their foods and the economic and environmental benefits of obtaining fresh, local produce,” said Carol Smathers, an extension field specialist and the program’s new director.
Smathers says farmers who participate in the program benefit in a variety of ways, including having access to a committed market with constant, steady demand; getting reliable prices for their products; increased community awareness and support; and market diversity.
“As we look for ways to reverse the trends in childhood obesity, it is clear that interventions are needed across multiple individual, interpersonal, organizational, policy and system levels,” Smathers said.
“The Farm to School initiative has the potential to directly change individuals’ knowledge, norms among groups, system-wide policies and institutional environments in ways that support healthier nutrition choices and behaviors among children and youth in Ohio.”
In March, OSU hosted a statewide Farm to School conference with support from the state departments of education, health and agriculture. The event, which drew more than 300 attendees, helped highlight opportunities for farmers, schools and community leaders to work together and boost participation in the program.
Farm to School is also involved in a variety of events this year to help spread the word about opportunities for growth, Smathers said.
These include an Ohio State College of Medicine Farm to Fork event, Trumbull County School to Farm Road Trip, OSU’s Farm Science Review and National Farm to School Month (October).