Ohio Farm to School Conference touts healthy eating, hands-on learning

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COLUMBUS — It makes sense that an organization dedicated to getting more of farming into schools would call itself “farm to school.”

It’s a name that several state and national organizations have embraced, including the largest of all — the National Farm to School Network — which is now found in 12,500 U.S. schools.

But the name says as much about what the organization does — and the movement it belongs to — than just being a title.

Farm to school involves getting students and faculty involved with food production, food handling and tasting, cooking, education, healthy living and dining, said speakers at the annual Ohio Farm to School Conference, held March 13 at the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center in Columbus.

“Farm to School is the whole picture of what holds all of this together,” said Anupama Joshi, executive director and co-founder of National Farm to School Network.

There is no concrete definition of what a farm-to-school program should be, and each school adapts it to its own needs, but most involve a heavy reliance on local farmers and producers, as well as local community members.

“The farm-to-schools movement is a perfect example of how a local foods movement can have an impact on many areas in our communities,” said Keith Smith, director of Ohio State University Extension. “It’s not just a matter of putting the food into the cafeteria.”

Educational tool

OSU Extension has organized Ohio’s Farm to School program for about the last 18 months. Smith said it’s a great way to help teach students where their food comes from and re-introduce them to important life skills.

Joshi estimated about 22 million children eat school lunches every day, and for some, it’s the only “substantial” meal they get.

“For many of them, as they go back home, there is not a hot meal that is waiting for them to eat,” she said. “It is imperative that we make our school meals as healthy as possible.”

Ohio farm-to-school programs have done this by serving more produce, and more foods produced from raw ingredients.

Tied to learning

Joshi said some students are showing up to school hungry, and that it most definitely limits their ability to learn.

“They are coming into school hungry and we all know that hungry kids are not good learners,” she said. “Well-fed kids are good learners. If the objective of schools is to have learning as the focus — and rightfully so — then food plays an important role in how our kids are learning.”

Many participants

The National Farm to School Network require support from a lot of individuals, including students, staff and parents.

A couple dozen behind-the-scenes members of Ohio’s movement helped present it to a packed audience of about 300.

Bonnie Ayars, a dairy farmer from Mechanicsburg and an OSU Extension dairy specialist, said her family invites school-age children and other guests to tour their dairy and gather information in the farm’s “event center,” a conference-like room designed for large meetings and consumer outreach.

Ayars said children are eager to learn about farming and where their food comes from, but depending on their age and attention span — “you sometimes have to tap dance your way through the lesson.”

She combines creativity and entertainment to keep kids focused, and to drive home the lesson.

And, sometimes, she learns a few things from the students, about they’re thinking and how they feel.

“You gotta stop, shut your mouth and listen to what someone else is saying,” she said. “And not finish their sentence for them.”

During afternoon sessions, program after program gave an update on how they use farm to school, and what it means to their community.

Good examples

Ridgemont FFA Adviser Stephanie Jolliff and a couple students talked about how the school helps educate its students, K-12, about where their food comes from. The program has introduced thousands of students to dairy, poultry and other livestock, and put students behind the wheel of tractors, so they could see how production agriculture works.

Bob Jones Jr. of the Chef’s Garden in Erie County doesn’t actually sell his farm’s produce to farm-to-school programs. But he’s heavily involved with educating students throughout the state, including the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association, and Veggie U.

Jones’ family helped found Veggie U., which is now a nationwide, not-for-profit children’s program that teaches young people about food production and healthy eating.

“Hand’s-on learning is not new, but it’s extremely effective,” Jones said.

Most farm-to-school programs involve a healthy dose of hands-on activities, which help students to try new foods and be less timid.

“We do that by getting their senses excited,” Joshi said. “Feel it, touch it, smell it eat it and you will eat it all your life.”

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

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