Farm to School

Farm to School: Whether in rural communities or urban settings, schools are finding novel ways to feed students healthier, locally grown food at the daily lunch table. Quietly, this movement is gaining momentum across the country, providing children with a nutritious, well balanced meal once a day. Not only do Farm to School programs support local economies, they also provide children the opportunity to cultivate the food themselves as part of the curriculum.

As the growing concern over child obesity increases, nutritious lunches containing proper amounts of fruits and vegetables can be obtained from local farms in place of the traditional processed food served in most U.S. cafeterias. With an increase of direct consumption of fruits and vegetables also comes an increase in food borne outbreaks; therefore food safety is an important issue for both producer and consumer. Farm to School programs need to be proactive in maintaining food safety by following simple steps that any grower, school kitchen, or garden can follow. This summary provides a brief overview of steps to ensure food safety in Farm to School programs. For more information, refer to the helpful website links at the bottom of this article.

Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) are an important set of guidelines for producers to understand to ensure the food they provide to schools is free from harmful microorganisms. GAPs guidelines cover topics such as planting, production, harvest, and post-harvest to reduce the chance of food borne outbreak. Although current technologies cannot eliminate all potential food safety hazard associated with eating produce raw, growers should be vigilant to reduce or control food safety risks at all stages of production. In addition, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) can minimize and control the risk of contamination that may occur after harvest and during packing. Operations such as cutting, peeling, or re-packing harvested produce may introduce harmful bacteria that were not present at the initial harvest if proper GMPs are not followed.

As a school, be upfront with your growers about the handling, packaging, quality, or food safety documentation prior to signing a contract. Developing relationships between farm and school will assist in building a strong program. Involving parent volunteers to assist in kitchen preparation of the produce, picking up deliveries at the farm, or organizing nutrition education activities will expand the into the community. Resources about current standard operating procedures are already available in a school’s food service program. In addition to the current SOPs, food safety protocols should be followed during the purchase, storage, and preparation of fresh produce to be served in the school lunch. These guidelines can be found in the food safety and quality section of this guide.

School gardens also serve as living laboratories, giving children the opportunity to watch their food grow from seed to salad. The same principles apply to school gardens as they do with farms in terms of good agricultural practices. Schools may benefit from having a direct supply chain of food to their cafeteria by avoiding potential contamination that is often associated with long distance travel. Safe handling should be reviewed with any students, teachers, or volunteers that may be in contact with the produce prior to consumption. School food authorities should familiarize themselves with the federal, state, and local requirements regarding health and sanitation issues surrounding school gardens.

The best way to create a successful Farm to School program is to be informed, know your school and local health regulations, and maintain close contact with the growers in your area providing fresh produce.

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