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For students in Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS), enjoying a farm-fresh meal is as easy as walking to the cafeteria. In addition to providing healthy foods, the school system’s Farm to School program connects students with local farmers.

Located in the fertile Shenandoah Valley, HCPS is in an ideal place to reap the benefits that the statewide Farm to School initiative has to offer. The district’s Nutrition Director, Andrea Early, has been an important local and statewide leader in the program.

“Andrea recognized the importance of Farm to School early on,” says Leanne DuBois, who serves as the statewide Farm to School coordinator in the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Marketing Division. “Other Virginia school districts have been inspired by Andrea, who is also the National Farm to School representative for the state. The heart of the program is about building relationships, community engagement and appreciation of Virginia agriculture.”

During the first year of the program, the 2007-08 school year, HCPS lunch lines featured hydroponic bibb lettuce from Portwood Gardens Farm in Dayton, grown just a few miles from the school. The school system also joined the Shenandoah Valley Local Food and Farm Workgroup and started to network with area farmers. In May 2008, HCPS’s first Local Foods Day took place, during which students received a school lunch that was made entirely with locally grown and produced foods.

As the district’s Farm to School program has grown, it has obtained fresh produce from Standard Produce in Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction in Dayton, which offers fruits, vegetables and other items grown within a 100-mile radius of the auction.

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HCPS also works directly with local farmers and orchards to acquire produce. Apples, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, onions and squash are just a few of the fresh foods students have been served. HCPS has also purchased locally raised and processed ground beef and pork, as well as milled whole-wheat flour from a local grain mill and bagels from a nearby bakery. Overall, the district’s nutrition program typically spends more than $90,000 on local foods annually, comprising eight to 10 percent of their total food budget for the year.

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