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Kentucky lags on farm-to-school purchases

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Leslie McCoy
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Dalla Emerson, food-service director for the Bowling Green Independent Schools, is congratulated by, from right, Wilondja Akili and Quinn Otto after General Mills honored her school-nutrition work by putting her photo on a Wheaties box. The students serve on the Child Nutrition Food Committee at McNeill Elementary

The food-service director at Bowling Green Independent Schools will often get texts from a farmer in a neighboring county asking her if she wants the latest produce, like a fresh batch of purple cauliflower.

“We’re not ever going to say no. We can always add something fresh,” said Dalla Emerson. “We try to bake them in the oven, salt them a little bit.”

That cauliflower is just the tip of the iceberg with Kentucky produce in her schools: A salad bar offers local cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. During the pandemic, her school district handed out 1,200 pounds of blueberries from a Warren County orchard, and bags of local vegetables were also given to families.

“Farm to School” programs across the country generally work to bring locally-grown food into schools. Emerson said her program is a dedicated effort to make sure students have these local options, a part of their education to show children and teenagers the possibilities with what they eat.

“We’re expected to produce citizens that are vested in our community, and it starts with us,” she said. “It starts with educating them in the schools, not just about math and science and history, but also nutrition.”

Emerson has used up to about 20% of her school district’s food budget each year to buy locally, but that makes her an exception in Kentucky, according to a recent study by Kentucky agriculture and nutrition advocates.

Only about 5% of food purchased by Kentucky schools was sourced from local farms in 2019, the latest year with federal data available, according to a study published in October by the Kentucky Food Action Network — a coalition made up of the food bank network Feeding Kentucky, the poverty law research center Kentucky Equal Justice Center and other groups.

More farm to school food served in nearby states

Kentucky schools also lagged behind in incorporating local food compared to schools in nearby states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee, the study found.

Food and nutrition advocates see these shortfalls as an opportunity to expand on not only providing students with nutritious meals but also to boost the incomes of smaller-scale Kentucky farms. Kate McDonald, who runs the No Kid Hungry campaign for Feeding Kentucky, points to the fact many school children receive multiple meals each day during the school year.

“Farm to School is making sure that kids have access to local foods. It just makes sense. It’s a win-win for Kentucky kids and Kentucky farms,” McDonald said.

McDonald helped launch the Kentucky Grown Vegetable Incentive Program in 2018 to help support more local fruit and vegetable purchases to include in summer meal programs for children. But the research study McDonald contributed also lists several challenges in trying to adopt Farm to School more widely.

For one, according to the latest federal agriculture data from 2017, there aren’t enough Kentucky farms that sell to institutions and retail markets such as school districts to supply produce for every school in the state; many more farms sell directly to consumers at farmers markets, for example. It also takes time to build purchasing relationships between farmers and districts, and food service directors in schools want to make sure they have a dependable supply of food.

“It’s just hard for schools to balance wanting to work with local farmers and having a dependable reliable quantity when they need it,” said Tyler Offerman, a food justice fellow with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

Offerman said the paperwork and bureaucracy involved with procuring local food is also a burden, with some school districts not wanting to deal with the extra effort.

Paperwork, bureaucracy, burnout

Leah Feagin, President of the Kentucky School Nutrition Association and food-service director for Mayfield Independent Schools, said these local food service directors often wear multiple hats — such as also directing transportation for the district — and in small school districts, may be the only district employee ordering the food.

“The director job is a full-time job,” Feagin said. “They’re burnt out. And then how do you say to that director, ‘I know you still don’t have everything you need to get done today and you’ve already put in your nine hours, but what about trying to find some farm to school options?’”

In Bowling Green Independent Schools, Emerson was able to convince the school board to hire a menu coordinator to help with managing the food orders. But the costs of buying local food can also be prohibitive; Emerson has had to fill out paperwork for grants to help support some of her purchases.

Nutrition advocates behind the Farm to School study point to an incentive program implemented in Alabama that provides school districts extra funding to buy local food, or more collaboration in Ohio between university-run agriculture extension offices and school districts to incorporate local foods. In Kentucky, a farm to school online portal run by the University of Kentucky aims to help connect school districts with farmers interested in providing local meat or produce.

Tina Garland, the Farm to School coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said she understands there’s a lot of room for improvement with Farm to School programs. But she believes the growing engagement she’s seen in schools with local food, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when food supply chains were roiled, is something that can be built upon.

“I see more and more people making that connection of the importance of, you know, connecting with a farmer, and knowing where your food comes from,” Garland said.

This story was originally published by the Kentucky Lantern.

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.