From harvest to lunch tray

Virginia celebrates Farm-to-School Week

By Henry Culvyhouse

Virginia public schools will be commemorating the sixth annual Farm-to-School Week, a program coordinated by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Virginia Department of Education, next week.

Started in 2009, Farm-to-School Week is an awareness effort to bring more locally grown, fresh fruits, vegetables, beef, dairy and poultry to public school meals. According to the 2011-2012 Farm-to-School Census conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, Virginia schools spent approximately $12.46 million on locally produced foods.

Sara Pennington, a spokesperson for the VDACS, said Farm-to-School Week is celebrated differently across the commonwealth.

“This isn’t a mandatory week and plenty of school systems do not choose to participate in a big way,” Pennington said. “However, for the schools who do bring in speakers such as farmers to show students how their food is produced, the benefits for the students is immense.”

The 2011-2012 USDA Farm to School Census indicates 64 percent of Virginia public schools participated in Farm-to-School activities. According to Pennington, both rural and urban school districts participate.

“Anecdotally, I’ve seen high levels of involvement in rural districts, like Harrisonburg, where farming is very much a part of life,” Pennington said. “However, Fairfax County, one of our most urban counties, also takes the opportunity to educate students about local foods, as well as bring local foods to lunch trays.”

Pennington said the most important aspect of Farm-to-School Week is getting locally produced food into cafeterias.

“Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry, and to help grow our industry and bring in our fresh grown products is a win-win for both farmers and school systems,” Pennington said. “If we can get a handful of school systems involved, that’s a victory.”

According to the USDA Farm-to-School Census, 80 out of 132 of Virginia’s school districts purchased locally produced foods for school breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks. Lexington City Public Schools was at the top of the list in terms of local purchases, allocating 54 percent of its food budget to local products.

Shenandoah County Public Schools allocated about 15 percent of its food budget to locally produced products during the 2011-2012 school year. According to Beverly Polk, school food services supervisor for Shenandoah County, the school system spends about that much every year.

“We generally keep it at 15 percent, because some local products are a little more expensive to purchase,” Polk said. “We expect to keep it at that amount, but things could change depending on prices.”

Polk said while Shenandoah schools commemorate Farms-to-School Week in a major way, such as with events or guest speakers, it tries to incorporate locally grown food throughout the year. Apples, flour, sausage, chicken and strawberries are among the local products purchased by the school system.

“Locally produced food can be anywhere in the state, but to me, it’s important to try to buy food from Shenandoah County farmers and neighboring counties,” Polk said.

In light of the recent changes to school nutrition guidelines, Polk said buying locally has neither been helped nor hurt by the changes.

“I don’t see much of a difference in terms of nutrition,” Polk said. “The farmers we purchase from are consistent with their product and it is fresh and healthy for students.”

Polk said the time for celebrating locally grown food in Shenandoah County is in the spring, when the strawberries are in season.

“Students love the strawberries,” Polk said. “We try to have a week of locally purchased products for lunches in May, because students love the strawberries that come with them.”

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com