Three local school districts and the University of Missouri Extension are working together to create an environment of healthy living within the classroom.
The USDA Farm to School grants connect local food producers and processors with schools to provide nutritious meals in school settings, as well as to educate students about where that food comes from.
Dr. Pam Duitsman, nutrition and health education specialist with University of Missouri Extension, said, while these programs focus on students, they benefit the local economy as well.
“You know USDA said that the Farm to School Initiatives really helps build economy and support local food systems probably better than anything else going on, so it really provides a lot of connections within the community, so the entire food system is strengthened by these programs,” said Duitsman.
According to Duitsman, schools offer "a very stable market" for local farmers and food processors, which in turn boosts the local agricultural community. Students are also more inclined to participate in meals offered at school, which generates increased revenues for districts.
Hollister Schools, Springfield Catholic Schools and Springfield Public Schools receive USDA grant money through the Farm to School program. Because of that, they are able to provide local food for snacks and lunches, and they also educate students on agriculture, food, nutrition and health.
The Farm to School program goes beyond the classroom. Duitsman said it can impact entire families.
“We have parents that tell us that their families are eating together for the first time, they’re going grocery shopping together for the first time, planning menus together," said Duitsman. "It really changes family dynamics.”
Duitsman said the Farm to School program benefits University Extension, too.
“It’s really been a blessing to all of us, and it also really helps with community development because I’m meeting partners every day that are concerned about all these things that wouldn’t otherwise be engaged, Duitsman said.”
Schools receiving the grant, in collaboration with Missouri Extension, host Junior Chef Competitions where students plan their own menu and cook food for a panel of judges, similar to popular television shows like “Chopped.” There are also field trips to community gardens and to local farms where students gain hands-on experience in growing their own food.
However, these grants can only go so far. Director of Health Services for SPS Jean Grabeel, said community partners are stepping up to pool resources and help keep these programs in place .
“We have a great partnership with the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, and we’ve used some local funds to help us, and then MU Extension has provided assistance as well, said Grabeel.”
Looking forward, Grabeel expects these programs to continue to grow. She said they hope to expand the Junior Chef Competitions and procure more foods from local farms by working with local distributors.
You can find out more about the Farm to School Programs here.