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Connecting kids and farmers


USUALLY, THE ONLY TIME WE SEE SCHOOL kids in local farmers' fields is around Halloween, when they arrive at various pumpkin patches in search of their annual jack-o'-lanterns. But thanks to the efforts of many, all that is about to change. The national "Farm to School" program has arrived in Humboldt County!

It's an interesting match, isn't it, kids and farmers? Here's the deal. The program seeks to increase the nutritional value of school meals while providing market opportunities for local farmers. The program also hopes to introduce children to local agriculture, nutrition and cooking skills -- all of which will connect them to their food in ways that promote lifelong health.

This program couldn't have arrived at a better time. Today's children face disturbing nutritional issues. Childhood obesity and diet-related illnesses are increasing at an alarming rate. Now, with the state budget crisis threatening educational funding, schools are being forced to make decisions that compromise the very meals children receive at school.

Michelle Wyler, coordinator of the program, explained the local response to these growing problems.

"People in this area were very concerned and started meeting to discuss what they could do. This led to the formation of the Food Policy Council, a group of parents, educators, dietitians, school lunch personnel and community members dedicated to improving the situation."

In time, their discussions resulted in the formation of the Farm to School program. With support from the Eureka-based agency, Food for People, and funding from the California Cancer Prevention Nutrition Network (an organization that promotes healthy lifestyles), the Farm to School program targets school meal programs that serve 50 percent or more of their students through free -- or reduced cost -- lunch and breakfast programs. (That's a significant percentage of Humboldt schools.)

The people behind the Farm to School program faced an awesome task. But these are determined, dedicated citizens. Wyler and HSU graduate student Dan Tainow threw themselves into surveying 35 qualifying schools in a geographical area ranging from Orick to Garberville and inland from Orleans to Blocksburg. To assess each site, school principals and food service directors were asked about buying practices, nutrition and gardening education programs, and general interest in the Farm to School philosophy.

The results, tabulated by Tainow as part of his master's thesis, were recently presented to interested educators, parents, and community members at a free workshop, "Food Matters." Next, the Farm to School program will identify pilot sites based on individual need and interest.

But what also intrigues me about the Farm to School concept is how far-reaching it is. Think about it: providing children with healthy food while offering extensive learning opportunities. That's top-notch education in my book.

Arcata School District nurse Joan Tempest has been involved in bringing kids and gardens together for many years. "Every school in our district has some type of gardening program. At Sunny Brae, the kids go right out through the back playground into Arcata's Community Garden." A panelist and facilitator at the Food Matters workshop, Tempest is a strong believer in the Farm to Schools program: "We would love to have fresh food for our children and also be able to support the local farmers. This partnership will send a great message to our children." (Tempest also noted that their gardening project wouldn't survive without the help of AmeriCorps. See the April 17 "Good News" column for more on this hard-working organization.)

Maggie Banducci, an Arcata mother and a member of the Food Policy Council, knows just how beneficial these learning opportunities can be. As a Sunny Brae Middle School parent, Banducci has been able "to see the kids' faces when they leave the classroom and go out to dig in the dirt. They are so happy. When they first return to school in the fall, the kids do a harvest and cook a big soup for everyone. They're very proud. And whenever there is a bumper crop, the extra produce is donated to the Arcata Food Endeavor." She went on to explain how gardening was integrated into many different aspects of school curriculum, "science, math, art, weather study, global issues."

Interesting, isn't it, that something as basic as gardening can touch so many different areas of our lives?

Of course, none of this would be possible without the farmers. Wyler explained that the benefits for the farmers are significant. "Farm to School will establish another niche for their produce and increase their income; but if interested, a farmer can also take on a teaching role, having kids to their fields and educating them about where their food comes from."

Banducci acknowledged that there is "still a lot to figure out" about the Farm to School program, but she's optimistic. As a mother, she sees the possibilities: "Wouldn't it be great to offer kids a salad bar, perhaps freshly baked bread and be able to teach them so much at the same time?" As a concerned citizen, she sees the problems if we don't take action: "How much is it costing us to not have healthy adults? This program is part of a long-term solution to some very real problems."

I couldn't agree more.



North Coast Journal Weekly

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