Home News Local News School districts eye ‘Farm to School’ grant, healthier lunches for students

School districts eye ‘Farm to School’ grant, healthier lunches for students

The Southold school district is seeking ways to provide healthier lunches and fresh, local produce for students.

At last week’s board of education meeting, Superintendent David Gamberg said the district is seeking to apply for a $100,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Farm to School” program.

Gamberg said all seven school districts on the North Fork, including Southold, Riverhead, Mattituck-Cutchogue, New Suffolk, Greenport, Oysterponds and Shelter Island were teaming up to apply for the “novel” grant, which helps to foster opportunities to bring local produce from area farms into the school for lunches.

The deadline to apply for the grant is November 20, he said.

At the meeting, Board of Education Chair Paulette Ofrias said she’d like to begin a conversation about how to upgrade the quality of school lunches.

“We spent a lot to improve the cafeteria but the food is getting worse,” she said.

Now that an “antiquated kitchen” has seen upgrades and a makeover, Ofrias said it might be time to look at new options for food services.

“I don’t think any of us are jumping up and down about the idea” of renewing a current option with food service provider Aramark Food Services, she said.

Gamberg said it would take “more than just a meeting” to come to any decisions, but Ofrias said the goal was just to “begin the conversation.”

BOE member Judi Fouchet added that with the district’s student garden and the farm to school movement, improvements should be considered and have “been years in coming.”

The USDA’s farm to school program recently released a census, indicating that the programs nationwide can “increase the number of students purchasing school breakfast and lunch, improve consumption of healthier foods at school, and reduce plate waste. Census data also indicate that schools purchased nearly $600 million worth of food locally in school year 2013-2014, a 55 percent increase over school year 2011-2012 when the first Farm to School census was conducted, creating new marketing opportunities for farmers and ranchers in their communities.”

The results, according to the USDA, “are an outcome of efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under Secretary Tom Vilsack’s leadership, to target resources to help schools serve healthier meals to students following the passage of the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Through its Farm to School Grant Program, established and funded through the Act, USDA offers grants to help schools and other eligible entities establish or expand farm to school programs.”

In September 2015, a release added, the USDA released a report that shows that the grants alone have helped 12,300 schools improve nutritious meal options made with local ingredients for 6.9 million students, also expanding opportunities for local farmers.

“Farm to school is one of many tactics and resources that USDA makes available to help schools successfully serve healthier meals to kids. Farm to school partnerships have a proven track record of encouraging kids to try, like and eat more healthy foods and creating new market opportunities for the farmers that grow them,” said Vilsack.

Nationwide, more than 42,000 schools have farm to school programs, which operate in conjunction with the National School Lunch Program and other school meal programs; according to the census, 75 percent of respondents with farm to school programs reported at least one of the following positive benefits as a result of participating in farm to school:

  • Reduced plate waste (17 percent);
  • Improved acceptance of the healthier school meals (28 percent);
  • Increased participation in school meals programs (17 percent);
  • Lower school meal program costs (21 percent); and
  • Increased support from parents and community members for the healthier school meals (39 percent).

In addition to serving local food, farm to school programs often include food, agriculture, and nutrition education that emphasizes hands-on experiential activities, such as school gardens, field trips to local farms, and cooking classes.

Census results can be accessed at farmtoschoolcensus.fns.usda.gov.

Also at the BOE meeting, Scott Latham mentioned one district he’d read about that had forfeited its $100,000 in federal aid for school lunches with an eye toward pursuing new and independent options.

“Imagine what we could do if we weren’t under the yoke of aid,” he said.

Fouchet said even if the district ever did decide to go in that direction, free and reduced lunches could still be provided. “We’d always take care of our own,” she said.