strawberries

North Carolina’s Farm to School program has made it easier and more affordable for cafeterias across the state to serve fresh, locally grown produce since it began in 1997.

“North Carolina was one of the first states to start a Farm to School program, and I certainly consider ours to be one of the best,” says Cindy Marion, director of child nutrition for Yadkin County Schools. “We have a great infrastructure and are able to offer our directors a lot of unique things. We’ve been at this a long time and have worked out a lot of our problems.”

N.C. Farm To School Participation

To participate in Farm to School, child nutrition directors access an electronic catalog and submit their requests to the food distribution division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Next, NCDA&CS marketing specialists relay those orders to area farmers, and food distribution contacts the farmers to schedule pick-up times.

“We’ll pick food up on Sunday and deliver it Monday,” says Gary Gay, director of food distribution for the NCDA&CS. “You really can’t get much fresher than that.”

According to Gay, strawberries are the most popular items ordered, with apples coming in at a close second. Blueberries, cantaloupes, peaches, watermelons, grape and slicing tomatoes, collards, kale, sweet potatoes, romaine lettuce and broccoli are also available.

The program’s farmers, all of whom are part of the North Carolina Farm to School Cooperative, must obtain a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which verifies they are following effective food safety procedures.

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“Our state’s Farm to School program really gives us the infrastructure to rest assured that the proper certifications are in place,” Marion says.

Farm to School

Benefits Across The Board

In addition to benefiting the state’s children, the Farm to School program has helped establish a win-win relationship between North Carolina farmers and child nutrition directors.

“The program gives farmers a market for their products and ensures that we’re going to have fresh North Carolina products in our schools,” Marion says. “Plus, as a child nutrition director, the one thing I have seen over my career that has made a real, true impact on students [nutritionally] is the Farm to School program.”

During the 2014-15 school year, the state’s school nutrition directors ordered 77,698 cases of fruits and vegetables, generating a total of $1.3 million – all of which remained in North Carolina.

“Farm to School supports local agriculture,” Gay says. “Being able to say you serve North Carolina apples in your school lunch program says a lot for the state and the state’s growers.”

Future Plans

While the Farm to School program is open to all the state’s schools, a small portion choose not to join in, and that’s something Gay would like to change.

“Last year, we had about 80 school systems participating in the program out of 114 schools,” Gay says. “We would love to have 100 percent participation – that’s our goal and what we’re shooting for.”

To accomplish that goal, Gay says he plans to communicate with nonparticipating school systems to determine the barriers they are facing and “help them knock those doors down, so they can participate.” Additionally, Gay hopes to procure more value-added foods, which would minimize the preparation time required by cafeteria staff members, and he says he will continue finding items that school children across the state enjoy eating.

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