Excitement is building around the New Jersey Farm to School program, said Mary Stein, associate director of the National Farm to School Network.
“Where New Jersey really stands out is through the school garden program. They’ve been major leaders around that movement,” Stein said.
“Those gardens are cultivated on school sites to familiarize students with gardening, food preparation, specific plants, and allow them to taste new fruits and vegetables,” said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
Beth Feehan, director of New Jersey Farm to School Network, has focused a lot of her attention on those school gardens.
In January, the state legislature passed a law allowing schools to serve produce grown in school gardens to students.
The bill allows school districts to serve fresh produce that has been grown in a school garden, provided the soil and water used in the garden have been tested and are safe for growing food for student consumption and the produce has been handled, stored, transported and prepared safely in accordance with applicable federal, state and local health and sanitation requirements.
Feehan said before the law was passed, some foodservice companies expressed concern the gardens presented too much liability because the food didn’t come through a regulated supply chain.
“That argument isn’t valid because with proper growing procedures, the food is just as safe, if not more so,” she said.
Despite the new law, Feehan said school gardens are not meant to replace local sourcing from nearby farms. There’s no way teachers and students can grow enough food to offset the need to purchase produce.
“We never advocate school gardens as a replacement for the volume of food that’s served. Those gardens are for educating students. We’re not suggesting schools start farming,” Feehan said.
One difficulty with trying to use more local produce in schools is the fact that schools aren’t in session for the peak of the local season.
“They do the best they can with the unfortunate circumstance that schools let out in June, which is when we really start to come into season,” Furey said.
In the summer, Feehan said school gardens can be managed by parents and volunteers, or even teachers.
“They can take a day or a week to water and harvest so the garden is maintained until school opens up again. Some schools are even putting a staff member in control for the summer,” Feehan said.
She said a few schools have taken the garden step even further by lightly processing the summer harvests by blanching and freezing produce to use after the children return from summer vacation.
School gardens aren’t the only aspect of the program that’s getting some attention, however. Schools are also working more with local farms to secure more local produce for their everyday menus.
“New Jersey is a major producer of fresh fruits and vegetables, which is a really important component,” Stein said.
Feehan also mentioned several other efforts, including logistical help and communication support for growers, schools and produce distributors.
“We’re shifting gears from focusing on the direct communication between schools and farmers to focusing on produce distributors and farmers, working on communicating local availability reports,” Feehan said.
In addition, Feehan works to ensure schools have the resources they need in their efforts to source local produce.
“There are a lot of options schools can use,” she said.
Jamie Graiff, co-owner of Newfield, N.J.-based Daniel Graiff Farms LLC, said he has seen more schools working with growers and other suppliers.
“There’s definitely a bigger push for schools to source local produce. The districts will come in and talk to growers, and there are a couple of different programs they can be a part of,” he said.