More than $9 million in USDA Farm to School Program grants were recently awarded to increase the amount of healthy, local foods served in schools and create economic opportunities for nearby farmers. Among the awards was a nearly $49,000 grant to Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network (LFN) for a collaboration with Weakley County Schools.
Though this year marks an all-time high of funding for the program with grants supporting 126 projects in 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, the Weakley County project is the only one in West Tennessee, and one of only three in the state, to receive a Farm to School grant.
The goal of the planning project is to create a Weakley County Farm to School Action Plan focused on Farm to School activities throughout the school district, which serves more than 4,000 students in 10 schools. The LFN will coordinate activities in collaboration with the Weakley County School System and stakeholders. The plan is scheduled to be completed by April 2021.
“The planning team will determine the tools, training, and technical assistance needed to create an integrated farm to school program that will not only educate and benefit our students, but positively impact the community by increasing access to healthy, local food in the schools,” explained Samantha Goyret, Executive Director, NWTN Local Food Network.
The plan will note identified needs, gaps, resources and funding sources for projects and is envisioned as a potential model that can then be replicated with other school districts.
“The Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network is very excited to work with Weakley County Schools, teachers, students, administration, parents and farmers to plan for future Farm to School projects and programming that will benefit the health and welfare of our students and community at large,” Goyret added.
In response to the announcement of the grant monies, Weakley County School Director Randy Frazier observed, “The Local Food Network has become a fundamental partner in networking within the community to connect farmers and resources to Weakley County Schools. We are looking forward to discovering the best practices to improve access to local foods in schools and ways to enhance our students’ understanding of the impact of local farming.”
Several Farm to School activities are already underway in the district:
· All K-3 students participate in a curriculum geared toward farming, sustainability, and local communities.
· All 4th graders participate in Farm Day and visit a local farm.
· At Sharon School, 2nd graders have planted a small garden and maintain a hanging garden installed by Women’s Farm Bureau, funding from Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom, and technical assistance from the LFN.
· The school system gives an Interest Inventory to 8th, 10th, and 11th graders. Each year, the category of “Agriculture & Natural Resources Conservation” is one of the top three areas of career interest for each of those grades.
· Dresden and Westview high schools have greenhouses onsite.
· Dresden High School has a livestock production program raising beef and swine. As soon as a USDA-approved processor is available, plans are to produce sausage for the school’s cafeteria.
· Each school within the district has a Healthy School Team to address the health needs for the particular school.
In addition to the contributions farm to school activities bring to local schools, the USDA notes that the activities also strengthen local economies. USDA’s 2015 Farm to School Census found that in the 2013-2014 school year alone, schools purchased more than $789 million in local food from farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food processors and manufacturers. Schools provide producers stable markets and long-term revenues, and the program introduces students to agricultural career paths.
“We currently use a limited amount of locally grown produce in our school kitchens,” said Trista Snider, Weakley County Schools Nutrition Director. “However, we anticipate that as a result of this year of planning and working with the Local Food Network and area farmers, we will be able to expand our sources and substantially increase the quantity and – since it will be local – the quality of our offerings.”
The NWTN Local Food Network (LFN) founders Goyret and Ashley Kite-Rowland will serve as project coordinators and oversee the implementation of forums, surveys and assessments that will lead to the final action plan. Snider will be part of the planning team as will Bethany Allen, Weakley County Coordinated School Health Director. Allen’s work will center on students and the Healthy School Teams.
Healthy School Teams are led by the school nurse and include an administrator, the school counselor, school cafeteria manager and other interested persons. They promote healthy eating throughout the school day.
“I envision this planning grant bringing awareness to locally grown food and the importance of healthy eating for all of our students,” said Allen. “Coordinated School Health will work with LFN to encourage school gardens throughout the district and ways to incorporate agriculture into academic lessons.”
~ Karen Campbell
Weakley County School District