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story.lead_photo.caption Wanetta Morrill of Rogers (left) buys tomatoes Saturday from Averi Johnson at the McGarrah Farms table at the Downtown Rogers Farmers Market. The farm-to-school program in Fayetteville interested Dennis McGarrah, and he started looking into it, he said. He turned in bids and won contracts for tomatoes, strawberries and bell peppers. - Photo by Flip Putthoff

FAYETTEVILLE -- The chicken drumsticks came from Decatur. Tomatoes, bell peppers and sweet potatoes in the recent "Local Harvest Lunch" in Fayetteville school cafeterias grew in Lowell and Tonitown. Edamame came from a Mulberry company.

Photo by Flip Putthoff
Averi Johnson boxes up tomatoes Saturday for a customer at the McGarrah Farms table at the Downtown Rogers Farmers Market. Dennis McGarrah would like to see farm-to-school efforts grow, but said he understands the challenges, adding he’s not able to deliver to dozens of schools each week, he said.

Butterfield Trail Elementary School third-grader Lydia Gillard, 8, liked her barbecue chicken so much she took the chicken off her mom Rebecca Harris' tray.

‘Local Harvest Lunch’

Fayetteville Child Nutrition Department developed a “Local Harvest Lunch” to feed 4,500 children in 14 school cafeterias with:

• 1,600 pounds of chicken drumsticks from Crystal Lake Farms in Decatur.

• 2,400 pounds of apples from A&A Orchards in Berryville for a warm cranberry apple crisp.

• 700 pounds of sweet potatoes from Dickey Farms in Tontitown.

• 200 pounds of edamame from Greenwave Foods in Mulberry for a slaw, with a recipe created by chef Jerrmy Gawthrop of Greenhouse Grille in Fayetteville.

• 160 pounds of tomatoes from McGarrah Farms in Lowell and 140 pounds of bell peppers from Dickey Farms served as part of a salad bar.

• Milk sold daily from Hiland Dairy in Fayetteville.

Source: Fayetteville School District

"It was really good," Lydia, 8, said.

Lydia didn't try the edamame slaw with carrots, red cabbage and peppers, but Harris liked it best. The meal Thursday highlighted efforts the Fayetteville School District has made over 11 years to include locally produced foods in school lunches.

The Fayetteville district is known across the state for its ongoing effort to link farms with schools, said Jenna Rhodes, a co-leader for Arkansas for the National Farm to School Network. Ally Mrachek, the district's Child Nutrition director, has trained and assisted other schools in beginning farm-to-school programs.

"Fayetteville built their program from nothing," Rhodes said. "It's a really great example of what's possible when you have a really great team and a plan."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in a 2015 survey found 5,254 school districts across the country participate in farm-to-school activities, including 47 districts in Arkansas.

Of the more than 250 school districts in Arkansas, 83 percent completed the department's 2015 Farm to School Census. About 70 percent of the 18,000 districts surveyed across the country responded.

Planning school meals with locally grown foods for thousands of children every day is a complex process, one other districts in Northwest Arkansas haven't been able to do.

Feeding children with locally grown foods has gone from special events to a routine part of school menus in Fayetteville. Menus feature local foods one to three times a week this month, Mrachek said. The goal is for more students to eat at school.

"When students find food exciting, they put a face to their food, they're more likely to have a healthy relationship with it and eat the right amounts," she said.

Starting from scratch

The effort in Fayetteville started with Child Nutrition Department officials purchasing food from the Fayetteville Farmers' Market to take back to schools, Mrachek said. They worked to build trust and develop interest among area farmers in selling some of their products for use in campuses, she said.

"They were more willing to devote more of their crops to the school," Mrachek said.

Nine schools began offering "educational lunches" in 2011 with locally produced foods featuring activities that led to increased participation in the lunch program on those days. The district about that time began working to purchase local food for regular inclusion in school menus at two schools, Mrachek said.

Mrachek started working for the district in 2012-13 through FoodCorps, an AmeriCorps program focused on connecting children to healthy food in school. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Fayetteville schools a $99,058 Farm-to-School grant the same year, along with a $10,000 grant from Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, she said.

The grant money paid part of her stipend for FoodCorps and then her wages as a part-time farm-to-school consultant in 2013-14, she said. Mrachek became a full-time district employee in 2014-15 as a nutrition supervisor, a role that included working on farm-to-school activities. She was promoted to the director's position in February.

Mrachek and the grant led to the development of a sustainable program for all 14 schools in the district in 2013-14.

School meals in the Nettleton School District in Jonesboro sometimes feature three varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and sweet potatoes from nearby growers, said Dawn Ragsdale, director of Child Nutrition for the district. Ragsdale displays posters in the lunch line to let children know the foods were bought from farms in the Jonesboro area.

"We just think it's important for our kids to see that and know that we're trying to provide them the best we can plus we're trying to support our local community," she said.

It's difficult

Lunches in Bentonville schools daily include fresh fruits and vegetables, but the celery, green peas, cherry tomatoes and cantaloupe served Thursday came through Sysco, the food service distributor for Bentonville School District, said Mike D'Angelo, general manager for the district's food service.

Sysco lets D'Angelo know when local produce is available to order, but preparing meals for more than 10,000 students a day involves a complex system, D'Angelo said. Orders for tomatoes are placed by food service managers in 18 schools, he said. The food service is run by Aramark, based in Philadelphia.

"It's hard with the amount of product we go through to work with one little individual farm," D'Angelo said.

He would need enough product to sustain all of the district's schools, and then there's the challenge of delivering the food.

"Who's going to take on that cost of delivery?" he said.

The Rogers' district Nutrition Department had 350 watermelons delivered to the district's warehouse at the beginning of the school year to test what it would take to deliver food to schools, said Margie Bowers, food services director. The watermelons were sent in seven large pallet-sized crates containing 50 melons each.

Breaking down the crates and delivering the watermelons took about two days, and the watermelons were of such volume they had to be delivered separately from other warehouse deliveries, she said. Those are costs the district doesn't incur when working with its produce vendor.

Bowers said the district has asked its produce vendor, Kimball & Thompson Produce in Lowell, to provide locally grown produce when available and meets the district's specifications for quality, size, cost and food safety practices, she said.

Springdale School District, which on Tuesday served nearly 17,000 lunches, also has limited ability to use local food because of the amount needed and the time involved in connecting with farmers, purchasing food and getting it to the district's 31 schools, said Carol Godfrey, director of food service.

Locally grown foods are a focus at four campuses with a FoodCorps staff member, Godfrey said. The FoodCorps staff oversee school gardens and promote locally grown food through a "harvest of the month" program that last month featured blueberries.

To make "farm to school" feasible for Springdale would take a program similar to one in Oklahoma providing a central point of contact to take orders from schools and find farmers to meet those needs, she said.

Most of the fruits and vegetables Kimball & Thompson delivers to the Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale school districts comes from other states, including California, Florida, Idaho and Washington, said Chris Thompson, owner and president of Kimball & Thompson. His company has developed relationships with farmers in central Arkansas who have more experience selling their products at wholesale prices.

Thompson thinks increasing the participation of Northwest Arkansas farmers in providing food for schools is a matter of getting them integrated into the supply chain. Kimball & Thompson already has refrigerated trucks and delivers to schools each week.

Many Northwest Arkansas farmers tend to focus on farmers markets, where they can sell what they grow at higher retail prices, Thompson said. Kimball & Thompson buys at a lower wholesale rate.

Thompson has received calls from area farmers when they harvested more than they can sell, but he needs to know what will be harvested and the price a few weeks before it's picked, he said.

"It would just take more of a cooperative effort with the farmers communicating with me what's going to be available," he said.

From the farm

McGarrah Farms has delivered red tomatoes on Monday this fall to Fayetteville School District's warehouse, Dennis McGarrah said. McGarrah thinks he will have tomatoes for a couple more weeks.

The tomatoes typically are picked less than a week before delivery and sometimes the day of, he said.

McGarrah primarily focuses on "you pick" sales, but also sells at several area farmers markets. The farm-to-school program interested McGarrah, and he started talking to Mrachek about it, he said. He turned in bids and won contracts for tomatoes, strawberries and bell peppers.

"The kids actually get fresh produce instead of something that's been in storage," he said.

McGarrah would like to see farm-to-school efforts grow, but said he understands the challenges, adding he's not able to deliver to dozens of schools each week, he said.

Crystal Lake Farms' relationship with the Fayetteville School District began two years ago when the company donated chicken as part of an agreement for being a sponsor of the Fayetteville Roots Festival, said Oren Bedwell, vice president of the Decatur company. The company produces chicken that's antibiotic free and humanely raised and is a supplier for Whole Foods, as well as other companies and restaurants.

The chicken was well-received by Fayetteville students, and Mrachek invited the company to submit a bid for the district to consider buying drumsticks, Bedwell said.

"That is something new for us," he said. "A lot of large school districts are improving their food quality."

The company wouldn't be able to serve Fayetteville if it didn't already have a chicken delivery route to local restaurants, Bedwell said.

"It's a great way to get great quality food at the source," he said. "If the school districts, such as Fayetteville, can make those connections, and it's logistically possible, it's fantastic."

Growing network

Connecting farms with schools is a strategy for preventing and reducing childhood obesity, said Rhodes, co-lead with Emily English for the Arkansas Farm to School program. The program is part of ongoing research on the impact of school gardens and the inclusion of local food in school meals on children's achievement and their willingness to try healthy food.

Another area of study is on the potential impacts of having a state coordinator for farm-to-school efforts, a project that will wrap up in December.

"The idea behind farm to school is teaching kids about food, why food is important and what food does for us," Rhodes said.

The process for getting local food to school districts can seem difficult, confusing and complex, Rhodes said. A $50,000 grant from the Agriculture Department went toward organizing five regional meetings within the last year to give farmers and child nutrition directors time and space to network and discuss barriers, she said.

Schools have worked to connect with farms on their own for more than a decade, but the state lacked a network for those involved in farm-to-school activities to connect and receive training and support, said Judith Weber, director of the Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention at the Arkansas Children's H̶e̶a̶l̶t̶h̶* Research Institute. The center has worked to fulfill that role.

The focus on farm to school is an effort to interest children in eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, Weber said. While the nutritional value of the food is the same, the idea is food from Northwest Arkansas farmers tastes better so the children are more likely to eat it, she said.

The center is working to learn more about the obstacles hindering farm-to-school activities for farmers, schools and food distributors, Weber said.

"A lot of people are interested in trying to figure this out," she said.

NW News on 10/10/2016

*CORRECTION: Judith Weber is director of the Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention at the Arkansas Children’s Research Institute. The name of the institute was incorrect in this story.

Print Headline: Farm-to-school interest grows, but barriers exist

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