by MARY TOOTHMAN
In today’s dining culture — with all the modern commonalities of fast food, frozen meals, and other quick ways to gulp down some food — young people can benefit from learning more about nutrition, fresh food, and the role farmers play in bringing food to the table.
With that in mind, the National Farm to School Network strives to provide information and advocate and network for communities to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and early care and education environments.
According to its website, the program “enriches the connection communities have with fresh, healthy food and local food producers by changing food buying and education practices at schools and early care and education settings.
“Students gain access to healthy, local foods as well as education opportunities such as school gardens, cooking lessons and farm field trips. Farm to school empowers children and their families to make informed food choices while strengthening the local economy and contributing to vibrant communities.”
Nationwide, many communities hold special events to get the message of Farm to School across. In Sarasota County, students this year participated in My Florida Plate Day on April 18.
The county’s main event was held at Garden Elementary in Venice Gardens. Florida orange samples, hydroponic lettuce displays and familiar faces in farmer costumes were part of the program.
Sponsored by the Food and Nutrition Services program of Sarasota County Schools, the event was a hit with students, says Kat Grimmett, of the Sarasota County Schools Farm to School program.
“Students were greeted at the doors by Brad Nichols from Palmetto Acres Farm before getting into line to load their trays with Florida-fresh fruits, vegetables, and burgers,” Grimmett explains.
The day’s Florida-grown menu items were served in every school in the county. They included Miami beef cheeseburgers, Florida Specialties green beans, sautéed West Coast Mushrooms, a tuna salad, stuffed tomatoes from Oakes Farms Market, Florida oranges from Classic Fruit Growers, milk and juice from M&B Dairy and a garden salad made with hydroponic lettuce from Palmetto Acres and the Homestead Hydroponic Farm.
One of the key goals of the annual event is to connect students with farmers who grow the freshest part of their daily lunches, Grimmitt says. And that was accomplished.
Andrea McClellan from M&B Dairy made much-appreciated contributions to the event. Cow-spotted plastic cups, educational activity books and pencils with “Got Milk?” written on them were handed out in the cafeteria.
Florida orange samples boosted the sales from Garden Elementary’s daily average of 41 oranges per day up to 115 on the day of the event.
Food and Nutrition Services of Sarasota County will host similar events in the future. More celebrations will be held during Eat Local Month in October.
“At our central celebration at Garden Elementary, we got to see and hear from students enjoying their Florida lunch,” Grimmitt says. “The biggest reaction was simply putting more of the fresh fruit and vegetable options on their trays, quite a feat for the little ones. Having local farmers, balloons and stickers in the cafeteria amplified the joy in the atmosphere.”
A long-term goal of this event is to expose young people to the wide variety of foods grown in Florida. The hope is that students will become familiar with and accustomed to reaching for these healthy foods, and take those habits with them as they enter adulthood.
“The Florida oranges were quite the hit with our elementary students,” Grimmett says. “At Garden Elementary alone, the day’s sales spiked from an average 41 to 120 oranges.”
And there are plans for the future, she says. “Our Farm to School program is constantly going through changes as we grow and include more local farms, so as far as what will be on the tray, where our main celebration will be and who our featured farmers will be, those answers are all the wonders of surprise.”
Food and Nutrition Services of Sarasota County will host similar events in the future. Next year’s event will also be held in April and more celebrations will take place during Eat Local Month in October.