How to bring local, healthier foods back to school

Did you know that almost 30 percent of Ohioans are obese? And do you realize that the state of Ohio spends more than $3 billion a year treating the health-related consequences of obesity?

The subject of health and consumption of locally produced foods is of great public interest. Fresh fruits and vegetables are essential to help people eat healthier. Fresh-cooked meals made with local products are tasty, and tasty foods encourage adultsand kids to eat better.

The Ohio Farm to School Program works statewide to bring healthy food to school cafeterias while supporting local farmers. Students who are reached by the program gain healthy eating habits that help them develop a healthier lifestyle. Part of a national network, Ohio's Farm to School program has projects and partnerships in all 88 Ohio counties.

"Before the Farm to School initiative, only 22 percent of our students purchased school meals. We now serve 65 percent of our kids. I firmly believe every school district can do this to some extent."—Chuck Dilbone, Business Operations Director, Granville School District

Leadership of Ohio's program was transitioned from the Ohio Department of Agriculture to OSU Extension in 2011; and Extension is committed to helping advance the Farm to School effort, increase local food production, and improve the overall health and wellness of children. Farm to School is a perfect example of how the local food movement can have an impact on many areas of our communities -- kids are eating food grown locally; schools are supporting local food producers and are reinvesting in their community with their local food purchases.

Good for kids, growers, health, and local economies

A recent study at Ohio State found that increasing local food production can keep millions of dollars in local economies -- up to $115 million a year in Cleveland alone. Greater demand from schools could help fuel this, and schools are discovering that kids like to eat good food.

As Chuck Dilbone, business operations director for the Granville School District, told Extension, "We realized our cafeteria didn't match our wellness policy. We wanted to provide our students with fresh-cooked meals with local products. Before the Farm to School initiative, only 22 percent of our students purchased school meals. We now serve 65 percent of our kids. I firmly believe every school district can do this to some extent."

In some cases, schools are also inviting farmers into the classroom to help students understand where their food comes from. The producers are, in turn, able to expand their operations, upgrade equipment, and become a stronger part of the community. And we know that if kids enjoy the food, they're going to go home and ask their parents to buy more of it -- which hopefully results in a healthier diet for the whole family and more local foods being purchased.

2013 Ohio Farm To School Conference was in March

In mid-March, OSU Extension hosted the 2013 Farm to School Conference at the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center. More than 300 attendees represented schools, producers, food service vendors, and state agencies (including Ohio's departments of Agriculture, Health, and Education).

National Farm to School leaders and USDA contacts also attended the conference, which was the result of the Ohio Farm to School Advisory Committee's collaborative statewide efforts to advance the use of local foods to improve the quality and nutrition of food for Ohio schoolchildren. Discussion topics included partnerships, funding and resources, student health, food safety, hands-on student education, telling the farm-to-school story, and local food procurement opportunities -- all designed to help OSU Extension and our partners continue to grow healthy young people throughout Ohio.

-- Cheryl Buck, OSU Extension