Bill Walker, agriculture marketing specialist for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, said he believes the partnership between schools and local growers will strengthen.

“To me, the farm to school program is the future,” he said.

New Jersey’s farm to school program seeks to bring locally grown produce into schools, both to increase fresh produce consumption, but also to teach students about agriculture and nutrition, according to a letter on the program website from Beth Feehan, New Jersey Farm to School director.

“Farm to School is a three-legged stool: local procurement and foodservice contracting with an eye toward accountability; the emergence of school garden education and its impact on getting children to eat fruits and vegetables; and federal, state and districtwide policies created by and for schools,” Feehan said in the letter.

Walker agrees that the program is important.

“We’re trying to help these children double their intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, and since they are in school for 12 years we can really have a positive effect,” he said.

Another benefit is the opportunity to source produce at a good cost to the school.

“Half the cost in most produce is the distribution, so if you don’t have a lot of carrying costs growers can bring produce to the school and get a good price for it and everyone’s happy,” Walker said.

Foodservice opportunity

Foodservice companies can work with smaller operations through these programs to help keep costs down.

“We’ve seen some distribution companies start trying to take advantage of having these small, local farming outfits. They see this as a big opportunity,” Walker said.

However, these programs also include the aspect of schools having their own garden areas for students to get even more hands-on experience.

“Every school has some sort of open area, and the more urban the area is the more important it is to have those raised beds,” Walker said.

Walker says that with today’s childhood obesity rates, the farm to school programs are crucial for educating students about fresh produce.

“Foodservice management companies are not only wanting to source fresh fruits and vegetables locally, but they encourage farm-to-school programs based upon teaching kids nutrition through the use of these gardens,” Walker said.

The state sponsored an award for the Garden of the Year to be given to a school that participates in the program.

One goal of the contest is to help keep a current count of all the school gardens in the state.

This is the second year for the award to be given, and the deadline for entry was Aug. 1, according to the July issue of New Jersey’s farm to school newsletter.

New Jersey has several materials available online to support the program.

They also help teach about the seasonality of local produce, so foodservice directors are aware of what is ready to be picked and available for use.