By Dr. Lynn Harvey, RDN, LDN, FAND, SNS
School Nutrition Association President
Chief of School Nutrition Services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

October is ripe with reasons to celebrate – school cafeterias are recognizing National Farm to School Month and National School Lunch Week (NSLW - Oct 9-13). The overlap is especially fitting since schools are increasingly turning to Farm to School activities to help promote the healthy, local choices available on school lunch menus.

In my home state of North Carolina, school nutrition directors can order locally grown produce and have it delivered right to the district through our Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The department even supplies educational and promotional materials to help students learn about the healthy offerings in the cafeteria that have been grown in their communities. During the 2016-2017 school year, the program generated nearly $1.3 million in produce sales with participation by 79 school districts statewide.

But North Carolina’s approach is just one of a multitude of successful Farm to School models and initiatives across the country. As School Nutrition Association (SNA) president, I am inspired by my peers every day as I witness the creative strategies they employ to connect students with more fresh, local foods.

For example, the School District of Holmen, WI, hasn’t let a short growing season limit their Farm to School efforts. With the help of school nutrition professionals and guidance from science and math teachers and the Future Farmers of America, students raise their own chickens, grow their own crops on donated land and harvest from hydroponic greenhouses. The 2016-2017 school year marked the fourth year students in the district helped raise chickens, nurturing and caring for them from day-old chicks to mature chickens. Students enjoyed the fruits of their labor during a “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner” event, with enough baked chicken for 3,000 servings. To learn more about this project and Holmen’s crop of 2,500 asparagus, visit SNA’s Tray Talk blog.

This year, as SNA members celebrate NSLW, we look forward to seeing how schools use the School Lunch: Recipes for Success marketing campaign to show off the many locally sourced ingredients in their recipes. SNA’s recently released 2017 Trends Survey revealed that 61% of responding districts have increased scratch preparation of school foods to meet sodium limits for school meals. Scratch preparation also allows schools to utilize more healthy, local foods into dishes.

Nearly 60% of districts surveyed report offering new menu items this school year that feature international flavors. Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern and other ethnic recipes help schools appeal to diverse student communities - and incorporate local foods. Douglas County School District, CO, serves Salvadorian pupusas, handmade locally using all Colorado ingredients. The dish was first served as a special feature on Colorado Proud School Meal Day but was so popular with students that pupusas are now menued year-round.

I am also glad to report that nearly 70% of school districts surveyed utilize salad/produce bars or made-to-order salads to give students more choices when it comes to selecting their fruits and vegetables. We love to see schools create delicious salad creations – especially when the incorporate student grown produce, like this colorful organic Green Swiss Chard salad from Arlington, VA.

SNA hopes schools and their partners will continue to share the good news about all the creative, positive Farm to School efforts in their communities!

School Nutrition Association is the National Farm to School Network’s 2017 National Partner of the Year. Read more about our partnership here.

Photo credit for all photos: School Nutrition Association