Locally sourced food a win-win for students, farmers
By Hannah Galeone
Special to the Rappahannock News
We’ve all heard of farm-to-table. Now there’s a big push in Virginia — including here in Rappahannock County — for farm-to-school.
Last month, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that the Virginia Department of Education awarded a nearly $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture toward creating eight regional farm-to-school programs.
Each program will support efforts to get locally grown fresh produce into school cafeterias and food agendas. Not only is the goal to develop the regional programs but also to help fund capitalization of agricultural products that are unique to certain areas of the commonwealth — and then get them into the schools.
Among the state school divisions that currently have farm-to-school programs in place are the Rappahannock County Public Schools, which source some local produce like farm fresh apples from the Thornton River Orchard.
But while Rappahannock schools make use of some local produce in their cafeterias they “would love to increase local food supply and are actively searching to do so,” says Amanda Grove, nutrition specialist for the Rappahannock school system.
When Rappahannock schools approach a farmer or grower they come to an agreement based on prices, quantities, and delivery schedules, but Grove says “there are challenges to sourcing local, including how the growing season of many varieties is when students are home for the summer.”
Rappahannock schools have also been working with the PATH Foundation on local food sourcing and have received funding through the Commit to Be Fit grant, which has helped schools increase fresh fruit and vegetable use in the cafeterias.
In addition, Fresh Bucks, a grant-funded form of “currency,” were recently distributed for students to use at the Warrenton Farmers Market. This allowed the children to experience a market full of fresh local produce and purchase some for themselves.
Rappahannock County Elementary School also has a farm-to-table class that is accompanied by on-campus gardens. The gardens allow students to grasp the concepts of planting, caring for, and harvesting fresh vegetables.
Sperryville’s Hearthstone School is another local educational institution that partakes in the farm-to-school culture. Although Hearthstone students bring their own lunches, “They have gardens at the school that [they] draw from,” says Jane Mullan, the school’s admissions director.
Mullan also says that the school “has cooking classes that makes a soup each week,” and they “pick from the garden for these dishes.”
Along with food items that the students eat during the school week, Hearthstone uses their campus-grown herbs to make botanical tinctures and salves. Students also take part in gardening classes where they learn the importance of planting, caring for, and harvesting herbs and vegetables that are products of their hard work.
When the school year starts, students plant fall crops such as spinach, radishes, leeks, and Swiss chard that will be used later in the year.
“Proper nutrition is an essential ingredient for educational and economic success,” McAuliffe states. “We also know that students won’t be hungry . . . . These USDA grants create a foundation to support both our Virginia farmers and provide our students with healthy school food options.”
Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe adds that Virginia’s farm-to-school programs “connect the Commonwealth’s rich agricultural resources with the next generation.”
She says that the grant will help nourish the youth of Virginia, benefit the local growers who will contribute to the farm-to-school programs, and allow the children to gain an understanding of where their food comes from and the impact it has on their communities.The most recent USDA survey of school districts found that 68 of 132 school divisions have farm-to-school programs in place and another 30 are in the process of developing them. School districts that participate in farm-to-school programs find that being involved with local producers has strong benefits.
Teaching children that food comes from farmers, not just the grocery store, is an important message that schools want to teach their students. The USDA states schools that use local produce see higher school meal plan participation, lessened food waste, and an increase in students’ willingness to try new foods.
The USDA also reports that nationally, schools spend an approximated $800 million on food that comes from local farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food services.
Rappahannock County has a quickly growing farm-to-school culture. Between the public schools’ relationship with local growers and Hearthstone’s on-campus gardens, the county has great potential to be self-sustainable within the realm of agricultural advances.