Funding provides greater incentive for schools to participate, boosting farm sales

More money is included in the recently adopted state budget for a program designed to help farms and schools by getting more nutritious fresh foods to students' lunch trays.

Reimbursements for schools purchasing 30 percent or more of their lunch food ingredients from locally grown or locally processed suppliers will increase from 6 cents a meal to 25 cents, part of a $10 million commitment promoting New York agriculture, according to Elizabeth Wolters, associate director of public policy with the New York Farm Bureau.

She said the idea is to encourage more schools to use more locally grown products.

The lunch reimbursement increase would begin Sept. 1. Wolters expects regulations on how the program will run to be developed jointly this summer by the state Education Department and the Department of Agriculture & Markets.

“We think it will provide more money for schools to be able to purchase from local operations and farmers, so we'll get more local fresh foods on to students' lunch plates," she said. 

The Farm to School program was created to connect schools with local farms and food producers to strengthen agriculture, improve student health and promote regional food systems awareness, according to the website www.agricuture.ny.gov.

“The funding is based on reimbursable meals,” said Gerry Barker, longtime administrator of school nutrition for the Geneva City School District. “We lobbied for several years to get that. It will be a great benefit to the farms because their products can be showcased right in the local school district. It's great for schools because we're going to feature that stuff and it creates a link so kids can have an understanding of what a local food is and where it's growing.”

An offshoot of the Farm to School program — Farmer Fridays — was recently launched in several area districts in a joint collaboration with Headwater Foods Inc., an area aggregator that also serves as a central food hub for farmers to take their products for distribution to the schools, instead of trying to deliver smaller amounts to individual districts, which was not economically feasible for many.

“All the districts come together and we purchase the product from Headwater Food Hub,” said Barker, noting that is in addition to what Geneva purchases directly from farmers. 

The first Farmer Fridays, launched March 23, focused on a potato medley featuring red skin, Adirondack blue and Vivaldi potatoes which districts used to create their own side dishes. The red skin spuds were grown at Williams Farm in Marion; Adirondack blue at Juniper Hill in the Adirondacks; and Vivaldis at Old Ridge Farm, Williamson. 

“This definitely helps with the collaboration we've been working with Headwater on,” said Alix TePoel, director of Food Services for the Victor Central School District. “This will help us easily meet the 30 percent that is required and continue to provide the freshest and most nutritious fruits and vegetables that we can to our students.” 

She said all the participating districts have wanted to get started on the Farm to School and use local products more and more. She said she learned about the monthly program through Broome-Tioga BOCES and then everybody started hearing about the food hub, which participated in a February meeting at the New York Wine & Culinary Center in Canandaigua, leading to Farmer Fridays.

The next one, set for April 27, will feature a string bean mix of green and wax beans, followed by Kale Day on May 18 and finishing off the school year with strawberries on June 15.

Tim Davis, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension Ontario County, said the government is very supportive of Farm to School. His organization is currently working with a federal grant through Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES.

Davis said Cornell Cooperative Extension tries to make the connections local producers need with local purchasers.

“We help simplify and make that whole system easier,” he said. “I think what you're going to see over time, you're going to see more schools become interested.”

Todd Fowler, food service director for the Bloomfield and Canandaigua school districts, said schools have been working with the Legislature for about three years for a Farm to School increase and he was really happy to see it included in the executive budget and approved by both houses of the Legislature.

“What that will do is create an incentive for schools to buy more local products,” he said. “Foods less traveled are higher in nutrition. It will therefore help improve the health of our student customers, shore up agriculture in New York and improve local economies.”

He called Bloomfield an early adopter, noting the district has been seriously involved in the program since 2006, but noted it will have to ramp up to meet the 30 percent requirement of lunch ingredient purchases. 

State Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua, said she fought hard during the recent budget process to grow the Farm to School program, noting it is good for the children and supports agriculture, which she called the backbone for the Wayne-Finger Lakes area.

“The Farm to School program makes it possible for our school nutritionists to work with local New York state producers to expand the healthy and nutritious food choices offered in our school cafeterias,” she said. “This is important because for some of our students, school meals are the only opportunity they have to access healthy food.”

Helming, who helped pass an amendment earlier this year to streamline the process for schools to purchase fresh food from local farms, said the program links farmers and schools and opens up great teachable moments.

“For instance, children can learn how the food on their plate was grown, what job opportunities exist in today's highly technical agricultural industry, and the importance of maintaining sufficient land and clean water to grow the food our families consume,” she said. “As chairwoman of the Legislative Commission on Rural Resources, I will continue my efforts on behalf of local communities and New York farmers.”

The budget also doubles state funding to $1.5 million for Farm to School grants.

“We thank Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo and the state Legislature for their leadership in helping our farmers while enabling them to produce more healthy local food for our children,” said Samantha Levy, New York policy manager for American Farmland Trust. “The new state budget establishes a national model for keeping our food dollars in the state, spurring local economic growth and opening up new market opportunities for our farmers, while expanding access to healthy food for millions of school children.”