Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that helps create and expand local food markets that will preserve our agricultural heritage, give everyone access to fresh, healthy food, and keep our farmers farming. Our mission is to help local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters, and build healthy communities through connections to local food. Our work focuses on three primary programmatic areas:
- Capacity Building encompasses community organizing; workshops, trainings, resource development; business planning, surveying, research; and mentoring.
- The Local Food Campaign involves the production of the Local Food Guide, Appalachian Grown™ branding, and activities furthering local food access, awareness, education, and outreach.
- Healthy Communities focuses on the education of children and families to promote access and wellness, experiential education to excite kids about fresh local food and connect them to their agricultural heritage, and increasing the amount of locally grown food served in institutional cafeterias.
While ASAP’s Growing Minds Farm to School Program is often associated with our healthy community focus, it is implemented through capacity building and strongly supported by our overall Local Food Campaign. Growing Minds has been developing and implementing Farm to School programming in Western North Carolina since 2002 and has expanded from a school garden program to a holistic Farm to School program with an education focus.
ASAP provides resources and training to a wide range of community stakeholders, to encourage and sustain Farm to School efforts. Seeds for school gardens, mini-grants for farm field trips, lesson plans, chef connections for classroom cooking, a lending library of children’s literature and curriculums, cafeteria promotions, volunteer recruitment, and training for chefs, teachers (preschool and K-12), farmers, cafeteria staff, and parents.
What is Farm to School?
Farm to School is a dynamic nationwide movement that produces multiple benefits, including improving student eating habits and farmer income. As a result, media attention and the number of programs across the country have increased drastically in recent years. In 2001, there were six pilot Farm to School programs in the United States (National Farm to School Network, 2009). Today, there are an estimated 2,257 Farm to School programs in 47 states that serve more than 9,629 schools (National Farm to School Network, 2011).
Farm to School is sometimes narrowly defined as: “Local food served in school cafeterias.” But the broader holistic definition also includes hands-on experiential education components, including school gardens, farm field trips, and local food cooking classes. The impact of these programs has become a popular research topic, with noted benefits ranging from increased fruit and vegetable consumption to quantifiable economic impact. Farm to School is place-based strategy to benefit children’s health and education, while simultaneously providing market opportunities for local farms and economic benefits for communities.
Impacts of Farm to School Programs
Health— U.S. childhood obesity has tripled since 1980, with 9.5% of infants and toddlers and 16.9% of children ages 2 to 19 considered obese (Ogden, Carroll, Curtin, Lamb, & Flegal, 2010). With childhood obesity a growing national issue, Farm to School is being looked to as a potential prevention strategy. In examining development of food preferences in children, Birch (1999) determined that multi-component school-based interventions that combined classroom curriculum, parent and food service components showed the greatest promise for fruit and vegetable promotion among children. Farm to School programs can offer this multi-component approach, integrating positive food and farm experiences into curriculum, engaging parents and community partners, and connecting classroom and cafeteria activities to create positive food environments. Of the Farm to School programs that have been evaluated, most have demonstrated increased selection or intake of fruits and vegetables following the incorporation of farm produce into school salad bars, meal selections, or class-based education (Joshi & Azuma, 2009). Increase in fruit and vegetable consumption reported by Farm to School studies ranged from 0.99 to 1.3 servings per student per day, compared to other non-Farm to School studies focused on school-based nutrition education interventions ranging from 0.2 to 0.99 more servings of fruits and vegetables per student per day (Joshi & Azuma, 2009).
Educational components, such as school gardens, of these programs are key to creating positive experiences and associations with fresh local food and influencing attitudes and behavior. Multiple studies support the claim that children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables (Canaris, 1995; Hermann et al., 2006; Libman, 2007; McAleese & Rankin, 2007;Pothukuchi, 2004) or express a preference for these foods (Lineberger & Zajicek, 2000; Morris & Zidenberg-Cherr, 2002). Farm to School programs are built upon the concept that personal connections with food and where it comes from increases consumption. Healthy food alone has been a difficult sell to children. Rather than trying to promote the healthy aspects of fruits and vegetables, Farm to School focuses on tangible, hands-on, positive experiences with real food. Children will eat vegetables, but multiple introductions and associations need to be offered, as well as good modeling and access. If children grow vegetables in a garden, cook them, and meet the farmer who grew them, they are more likely to eat them. Featuring local food not only offers fresh, great-tasting products, but also provides a “story” with which children can connect. Children, like adults, appreciate food that is fresh, well prepared, and presented in a pleasant manner. If food also comes with a relationship (child grew it, saw it growing on a farm, etc.), then the likelihood that the child will eat it, and also enjoy it, is increased.
In addition to quantitative research, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has identified Farm to School programs as effective community mechanisms to improve the quality of school meals, enhance effectiveness of nutrition education, and provide opportunities for eco-literacy training of students through hands-on experiences in the outdoors. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has included Farm to School as part of their comprehensive action plan strategies to improve children’s health and prevent childhood obesity. What students eat at school influences their attainment of and success in schooling (e.g., Taras, 2005), perhaps even more than it influences health (Hinrichs, 2010).
Education— Farm to School programs are based on the premise that students will choose to eat more healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, if they have positive experiences and relationships with the source of their food. These experiences (including school gardens, farm field trips, and cooking with local food) are not only critical components of obesity prevention strategies, but also important teaching tools that meaningfully engage students while building connections to agricultural heritage and rural communities. While experiential hands-on positive food experiences are known to engage students in their own learning, time and standardized testing requirements are often identified as barriers. While it does take a deliberate effort, activities such as gardening can be integrated into all areas of the school curriculum, making learning a meaningful experience (Canaris, 1995). A study conducted by Klemmer, Waliczek, & Zajicek (2005) found that third, fourth, and fifth grade students that participated in school gardening activities scored significantly higher on science achievement tests compared to students that did not experience any garden-based learning activities.
Farm to School programs benefit children’s health and educational experience because they build a strong sense of place and connection to community and to the food we eat. It is this more holistic, multifaceted experience that supports long-term attitude and behavior change.
Economic Impacts— In addition to improving children’s health and education, Farm to School is also a market opportunity for local farmers. Economic impacts and the potential of Farm to School programs for farmers are important points of discussion and research. The University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality and the University of Minnesota’s Department of Applied Economics recently collaborated to examine the economic impact of Farm to School in central Minnesota. Their report, released in June 2010, quantified the potential annual economic impact of Farm to School programs as ranging from $20,000 for a monthly special meal to $427,000 for sourcing a large amount of products.
In 2009, the nonprofit Ecotrust used input-output analysis to estimate the economic benefits Farm to School purchasing had on the Oregon economy. Preliminary analysis of this study showed that for every food dollar spent locally by the two school districts examined, an additional 87 cents was spent in Oregon, generating a multiplier of 1.87 for Farm to School spending.
A survey of Child Nutrition Directors in Western North Carolina, conducted by Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), showed that more than 70% of those responding demonstrated a high interest in purchasing from local farmers. Even if these Child Nutrition Directors began local purchasing with one product, the impact would be significant with slow, steady growth expected over time (Growing Local, 2007). In addition to the direct market potential for local farmers, Farm to School programs offer local farm promotion and cross marketing potential.
Community— Food has become an “abstraction” for most consumers (Belasco, 2008, p. 5)—at least in highly developed countries—given the far-distant growing or killing, processing, fortification, packaging, and marketing of modern industrial food (Weaver-Hightower, 2011). Connecting children to where their food comes from not only improves eating habits and offers educational opportunities, but also helps builds stronger community. In rural Appalachia, farming has long been associated with poverty. Highlighting the importance and hard work of the farmers in our communities adds value and pride to our agricultural heritage and strengths connections between generations. Farm to School is a concept that brings communities together. Regardless of the perspective, communities can come together around a positive program with multiple benefits.
Farm to School, local food served in schools, school gardens, farm field trips, and cooking with local food, can be easily integrated across program areas. Whether you are interested in increasing children’s fruit and vegetable consumption, instilling a love of learning, or expanding market opportunities for farmers, Farm to School is a win-win situation. Farm to School programs strive to build positive relationships with local food and farms, knowing the benefits will be long-lasting for children, families, farmers, and our community. Beginning with a classroom activity or one local food purchase may seem like an insignificant step, but the goals of these activities are far-reaching and part of a national effort to create healthier food systems.
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