The Indiana Horticultural Congress featured a panel discussion and roundtable about the growing Farm to School Network in Indiana. Pictured (from left) are Jill Pritchard, program manager of diversified agriculture at the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, and Kathy Cooley of Alpine Berry Farm in Batesville, Ind.
The Indiana Horticultural Congress featured a panel discussion and roundtable about the growing Farm to School Network in Indiana. Pictured (from left) are Jill Pritchard, program manager of diversified agriculture at the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, and Kathy Cooley of Alpine Berry Farm in Batesville, Ind.

INDIANAPOLIS — Leaders in the local food movement in Indiana are helping build the Indiana Farm to School Network, designed to connect farms with school cafeterias and classrooms.

The Indiana Horticultural Congress was the perfect event for the fruit and vegetable crop growers from the four corners of Indiana, coordinators of Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, officials from the Indiana State Department of Health and the Indiana Department of Education and others who are interested in the new effort to come together to discuss the program’s goals.

A partnership that began several years ago between the health department, the department of education, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, the Farm to School Network would incentivize schools to work with local producers to provide healthy food grown by Indiana producers in cafeterias and at lunch tables.

Of the projects currently in existence under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program, fewer than half are established by law, however, and plenty of challenges, from sourcing to funding to delivery, continue to exist for program coordinators.

A Farm to School Network also would concentrate on teaching cooking staff.

Farm to School activities could include a wide range of purchasing and educational programs, including procuring locally-grown foods as part of the school meals or snack program, using local foods in after-school and summer nutrition programs, cooking and tasting demonstrations and facilitating farm visits or classroom visits by farmers.

Kathy Cooley, proprietor of Alpine Berry Farm, a U-pick operation in Batesville, said she sees a great need for companies or distributors participating in the Farm to School Network to know the producers in their area to make a successful connection between the farmers who grow the food and the children who eat it.

“My interest is not just schools, but institutions,” she said.

“I’m very interested in getting students and people more interested in food and presenting farmers as superstars. The grants available are very encouraging, and I’d love to see blueberry bushes in school gardens.

“The perfect Farm to School program would start with students being engaged, and the perfect situation would be to connect local farmers with their neighboring schools and see the grounds at the school used to teach students about agriculture.”

Jill Pritchard, program manager of diversified agriculture at ISDA, said it is very important to know which farms are interested in becoming a part of the Farm to School Network since the project would work better with multiple schools aggregated together to meet supply and food safety concerns.

Producers are concerned that because a Farm to School program is not part of the department of education’s requirements for children that it could face challenges.

Brittany Dale, school and community nutrition wellness specialist at the IDOE, said a number of grants are available and that the Farm to School Network will be a coordinated effort between schools and producers as it progresses through the planning stages in the next couple years.

“I can see more of the foodservice directors reaching out to farmers because they will try to see more of the foods in the schools,” she said. “This school year has been more focused on meeting the new meal pattern guidelines, and there will be new regulations for breakfast coming next year.”

Dale said she has created grants that are geared toward schools so they can decide which opportunities best fit them.

“A Farm to School Network is not required, but it is highly recommended,” she said. “Schools are very competitive, so when one school sees another participating in this program, they will want to become involved, as well.”

For more information on the IDOE Farm to School program, visit www.doe.in.gov/student-services/nutrition/farm-school.

For more information on available nutrition grants, visit www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/nutrition/grants-template-dec-2012.pdf.