A bright, shiny apple is an iconic American symbol of schoolteachers and classrooms. In some New Jersey school districts, that apple is a locally-grown, Jersey Fresh apple, now available in the school cafeteria thanks to a program called Farm to School. October has been named the first National Farm to School Month.
Farm to School is a national initiative co-sponsored by farmers, government agencies and school lunch specialists. In New Jersey that would be the Farm Bureau, the NJ Department of Agriculture, and the NJ School Nutrition Association, respectively. The program connects schools that want to purchase local, farm-fresh produce for use in their cafeteria with farmers in their region who are growing and bringing to market the nutrition-rich food so important for growing minds and bodies. Farm to School Network’s tagline is: “Improve. Promote. Educate. It’s all about the Food.”
Along with matching local farms with schools who wish to buy fresh produce, the Farm to School program also strives to fulfill a public need to increase nutrition in schools and fight childhood obesity by educating students in nutrition and the importance of making smart and healthy food choices.
In a letter to the editor published by The Star-Ledger, a Newark-based daily newspaper, Assemblyman John F. McKeon (D-Essex) wrote: “Educating our children about the state’s diverse and nutritious Jersey Fresh produce will help them make healthier food choices and make them aware of the importance of supporting local farmers.”
Many schools across the state in towns like, West Windsor, Princeton, Vineland and Ocean City are participating in the program and will join other schools and farmers across the country in celebrating the first National Farm to School Month throughout October.
One cafeteria manager said she sees the Farm to School program as a positive way to introduce the enjoyment of fresh fruits and vegetables to kids who aren’t getting to taste the foods or acquire the nutritional information at home. She told me she is surprised at how many students have such little knowledge of basic fresh fruits and vegetables. This program helps her educate the students and they learn that fresh fruits and vegetables actually taste delicious and are not scary. Posters and banners are available that can be placed around the schools promoting the program and it’s use of fresh local products. Students and staff are aware that fresh, local, delicious and nutritious products are now available for lunch.
The program also benefits New Jersey farmers because they will have a base of customers ready to purchase the crops they grow each season. With demand in place it can help them plan accordingly so food, labor and dollars are not wasted.
During appropriate harvesting seasons, Farm to School participation means that strawberries, corn, tomatoes and melons may arrive at the school’s kitchens from Buzby Farm in Woodstown; or spinach and zucchini from Flaim Farm in Vineland. The prices are competitive with other commercial food providers. In New Jersey’s climate, fresh produce is not available for the entire year but one way some suppliers extend the season for buying local is by offering zucchini and eggplant pre-breaded and then frozen for use in the winter months.
The legislation naming October National Farm to School Month is also a product of New Jersey. It was introduced by Rush D. Holt, of the 12th congressional district in central NJ. “As a representative from the Garden State it should not be a surprise that I support bringing Jersey tomatoes or sweet corn into schools,” Holt said. “But this is not just a local resolution. Farm to School programs are a key priority for Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, and First Lady Michelle Obama, who planted a garden at the White House with the help of local students.
Farm to School programs educate NJ students about making healthy choices at lunchtime; help in the fight against childhood obesity and help to economically support local farmers. Gotta love a win-win-win situation like that!
Kerry Brown, Burlington County Regional Editor, loves casual meals from the grill and cocktails featuring fresh ingredients, especially when shared with family and friends in the backyard of her Medford, NJ home where she lives with her husband, two children, and a little gray cat named Tiki.