New program to help farmers sell food to schools
Nutrition » Utah among the last three states to implement system.
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Organizers are putting together a program to help local farmers sell fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products to Utah schools.

The announcement came Tuesday during the urban farming conference at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. The program, called Food to School, makes Utah among the last three states to set up a system that puts fresh, locally grown foods into school cafeterias.

After what others described as several failed efforts, "never again will Utah be a blank state on the national map for this vital service," said Penny Trinca, coordinator for the Food to School program for Utah." One of the first things we'll do is put together an inventory of producers and set up a networking site."

Utah already has a number of producers who could supply large quantities of produce, particularly apples and tart cherries, for many schools, she said.

Overall, Utah ranks second in the nation for producing tart cherries used in snacks, third for apricots, sixth in sheep production, eighth in sweet cherries, ninth for pears and 10th in spring wheat, according to the Utah Department of Agriculture.

Small producers also could supply fresh fruits and vegetables for Utah schools, as well, said Trinca, who helps operate her family's First Frost Farm, which grows organic produce on a 5-acre plot in Cache Valley.

Jim Dyer, of Marvel, Colo., and co-founder of Healthy Community Food Systems, recommended that farmers take small steps in breaking into school food services. Work with a single product that's popular among children, such as apples, or stage a special-event meal, he said. Then get comfortable with ordering, delivery, invoicing and food preparation before scaling up.

The biggest hurdle in putting local foods in state schools is a change of attitude away from serving cheap foods trucked in from far away, said Le Adams, with the Southwest Marketing Network, the lead agency for five states that include Utah for the national Farm to School program.

"Local foods are not always the cheapest," she said. "There needs to be an understanding of the link between our health and the food we eat."

The Southwest Network's mission is to educate children on the nutritional value of fresh foods, while helping local farmers, whose practices enrich the environment, stay in business, said Adams.

Despite above-average income generated by large American agricultural industries, most small to midsized U.S. farms are facing an economic crisis. The farmers' share of every food dollar has dropped from 41 cents in 1950 to 19 cents in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For every dollar spent on local foods in schools, $1 to $3 circulates in the local economy, said organizers. In addition, healthier options in school cafeterias result in more fruit and vegetable consumption, with an average increase of one serving per day.

The conference, attended by 150 people, comes at the same time that Salt Lake County is expanding urban farming by identifying dozens of fallow public properties that could be used to grow food or biofuel.

"I'm flabbergasted to see the number of people here," said Salt Lake County Commissioner Jim Bradley, who presented the urban agriculture proposal to the County Council. "This movement has roots.

"We need to promote a regional food economy and we need to grow food closer to urban centers. It's unfortunate that while the nation debates energy security policies and health care reform, the discussion on food security is missing."

Farm to School programs:

Purchase locally grown fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat for school cafeterias.

Nationwide, 2,000 school districts serve fresh, local food for lunch or breakfast.

New Mexico farmers sell $400,000 worth of fruits and vegetables to state schools.

The Riverside, Calif., district buys $250,000 of produce from local farms to stock school salad bars.

Chicago schools serve fresh and frozen produce to 300,000 students year round.

For information on the Utah program, visit swmarketingnetwork.org.