The Farm to School Project in Tucker County has had a very successful first year. The SARE Partnership Grant has enabled us to pay mileage to farmers for transporting produce to the schools, and the School Foods Director and support staff have been extremely supportive in helping encourage farmers to participate. Since the start of the project we have 9 farmers who are registered vendors with the Tucker County Schools, and have had some sort of local produce offered in the schools for 35 consecutive weeks. Items that have been sold to the schools are: lettuce, onions, arugula, raspberries, honey, apples, radishes, and tomatoes. We have held 6 organizational meetings, one of which included school cooks, and another which provided pricing training to the farmer-cooperators. We were able to purchase 25 collapsible trays for transport of fresh vegetables, over 1,000 clamshell containers for our cooperating farmers, and signs for every school in the county identifying them as “Farm to School Cooperators”. We now have a strong core group of farmers who are interested in participating in our upcoming GHP/GAP training. Working with our local Tygarts Valley Growers Association has prompted this group to increase production and form a cooperative for the purpose of selling directly to the school system.
Prior to 2012 Tucker County did not have any farmers who were currently selling home-grown products to the schools, though this is occurring in several nearby counties with success. This seemed to be due to a variety of factors including: lack of knowledge about the program, lack of communication between the farmers and the county food purchasing director, and lack of labor available to assist farmers with harvesting, cleaning, and boxing produce to sell to the schools. We believed that these problems could be remedied with some simple measures to make inroads into having more of our farmers offering fresh produce to county schools. By designing a system that brings together farmers, school personnel, and students we hope to (1) add value to locally grown foods, (2) offer a variety of healthy and fresh foods for local school children, and (3) help children to learn about where their food comes from.
Based on our methodology and funding support, we were able to achieve the following objectives:
• Increased the number of farmer-vendors who are selling to Tucker County Schools from none at the beginning of the project to 6 registered vendors by the end of the year.
• Facilitated discussions with school personnel regarding development of the Farm to School Program in Tucker County and created a plan to expand
• Provided fresh, locally grown produce (lettuce, onions, raspberries, honey, assorted greens, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries) to school children in Tucker County on a regular basis throughout the year
• Collected data about pricing and selling strategies from school personnel and farmer-vendors that will assist us in moving forward
• Developed an excellent working relationship with the School Foods Director and Director of Special Services that enabled us to work together to apply for a USDA Implementation grant to purchase equipment for the Farm to School program
We began by recruiting a small group of 3 farmers who were interested in becoming vendors. These participants met with the WVU Extension Office and our Farmers Market Manager in April of 2013. After the initial sign-up, we met with school personnel including school cooks, the Director of Special Services, and the School Foods Director to discuss billing, payment, drop-off procedures, types of produce, and quantities that could be provided. In May and early June of 2012 the first deliveries of produce were made to the schools. At around the same time, we added another 3 vendors to our list of participants, bringing our total to 6 registered vendors. Once the first orders of produce were delivered to the schools and used in the school lunch program, we administered oral questionnaires to the school cooks to determine their level of satisfaction with the quality and quantity of the produce. We surveyed the school children in grades 3rd and higher to determine if access to locally grown foods is important to them and if they were pleased with the experience.
Each farmer-vendor was asked to keep a record of their mileage for deliveries, which was turned in to the Board of Education and forwarded to the WVU Extension Office for processing for reimbursement. We also surveyed each of the vendors to determine what they needed as far as produce boxes that would make delivery easier and more professional. Produce boxes were ordered and received in February of 2013, and then distributed to our vendors. In April of 2013, we also used grant money to purchase large signs for each school that will be placed out front saying “This School is a Farm to School Participating Location”.
Overall, we feel that the project was tremendously successful. We exceeded our expectations about the number of farmer-vendors we would have, and have also seen many positive outcomes that we did not anticipate at first. The cooks that were surveyed unanimously agreed that the produce was of high quality, and they were very pleased with how convenient it was to get. Our School Board worked very hard to help with the project by making “welcome packets” that gave new farmers detailed instructions on becoming a vendor. They also were essential in assisting with tracking mileage for farmers, and made produce drop-offs easy and convenient. Because of the positive feedback and results of our first-year effort, we have several other vendors who will be signing up in the 2013-2014 season, and we have retained our original 6 vendors. The school children that were surveyed were very excited about getting the fresh produce. One of our FFA students also became a lettuce vendor this year, and it was wonderful to see other students asking him if they lettuce they had that day came from his farm. We feel that we have developed valuable relationships and inroads into making the Farm to School program in Tucker County sustainable for years to come.
In addition to increasing our local vendors, we have also seen a ripple effect in the local community. Shortly after we began our project, our community was blessed with another grant to hire a Local Foods Coordinator. We immediately brought her into our project as an advisor. Once we could see the success and potential of the Farm to School program in the county, she began educational program with school children about gardening and helped install vegetable gardens at each of our elementary schools. We have worked with our Tygarts Valley Growers Association to assist them in becoming a Farm to School vendor and were very influential in their recent decision to form a cooperative and begin branding some of their produce in order to sell to more public institutions. The signs that we have purchased for the schools are not complete at this time, but we anticipate having them ready for display at the end of summer as the children are returning to school. We surveyed 52 children in 3rd and 4th grades. Because we did this as part of a classroom activity, we received 100% completion. All reported that they were satisfied to very satisfied with the local produce that had been offered on the salad bar. Some of the comments were: “I wish we could get more strawberries!”, “I loved the little green onions”, “The lettuce is better than it was before you came”, and “I liked the kale chips we made in class”.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Since the start of the program we have included updates of our progress in our quarterly newsletters. We have also had feature articles in our local paper, and will be placing signs at the schools in the coming months.
At the end of the grant period, local vendors had supplied a total of $6,039.00 in locally grown produce and had been paid an estimate of $530 in mileage. We are working with our farmers currently to help them learn record keeping systems and use farm management records to calculate break even points and profit margins for various crops.
Areas needing additional study
Additional work is needed in the area of farm record keeping systems. By helping our farmers accurately price certain goods and determine which crops are most profitable, we can enhance small farm viability. We also need to host educational classes for our farmer-vendors about Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP). We are currently working with the WV Dept. of Agriculture to bring these training opportunities to our local area in late summer.