Grant to bring local food to students in southeast Iowa
Iowa may be known as the food capital of the world, but little of its bounty lands on the plates of schoolchildren in southeast Iowa, according to area local food specialists.
Local food system coordinator Jan Swinton of the Fairfield-based nonprofit, Pathfinders Resource Conservation & Development Inc. said change is drawing near. Swinton, who has spent the last year building relationships with farmers and buyers in 13 neighboring counties, has secured $100,000 from the new USDA Farm to School grant program to boost kids’ involvement in Iowa agriculture.
Swinton’s plan is twofold — to build a learning greenhouse for students and to increase the purchase and processing of local food in regional school cafeterias.
“The goal is to get more healthy, local food in school lunch programs,” she said.
Fairfield schools auxiliary services director Fred McElwee said the grant is coming at a good time, as schools add more fruits and vegetables to the menus in response to new National School Lunch Program mandates.
“We are open to the Farm to School program, especially with this year’s changes to school lunch and the increased fruit and vegetables that we have,” he said. “We are trying to offer the most healthy and nutritious meals we can.”
Swinton’s project is one of 68 nationwide to receive the first-ever round of funding for the program, totaling $4.5 million. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 established the USDA Farm to School Program to improve access to local foods. It ties into the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, launched in 2009 to help farmers build regional food systems. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administers the funding.
“When schools buy food from nearby producers, their purchasing power helps create local jobs and economic benefits, particularly in rural agricultural communities,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. “Evidence also suggests that when kids understand more about where food comes from and how it is produced, they are more likely to make healthy eating choices.”
Swinton hopes to build students’ connection to food with the 20- by 96-foot demonstration greenhouse. She said she’ll help coordinate with schools for students to come learn about the process of farming, from composting, planting and tending different varieties of vegetables to finally harvesting and eating the product.
“It will be a place students from any school can come to,” she said. “I sincerely believe it will help students get connected to their food and grow some future farmers.”
The site for the greenhouse is behind Dexter Apache Holdings Inc., a commercial laundry equipment manufacturer on West Grimes Avenue. Swinton contacted Dexter general manager Andrew Kretz who offered Pathfinders free use of five acres.
“We want to build a facility for kids to come learn and put seeds in the ground,” she said.
Kretz informed Swinton of hot-water storage tanks beneath the ground, which Swinton will use to warm the greenhouse. She said they’ll run pipes beneath it to keep it operational 12 months a year.
Swinton, who grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, said compost is the foundation of farming.
“It is my belief that the food system starts with growing good soil,” she said. “Our overall vision is for kids to come on the bus with a bag of lunch trash, pour it on the compost heap, and when they leave to harvest food to take back to the school cafeterias.”
The government began enforcing changes to the National School Lunch Program this year, creating standards for servings of fruits and vegetables. McElwee said Fairfield schools welcomes the change, but it’s taking time for students to adjust to a shift in diet.
“Like with any change, there’s a learning curve,” he said. “It’s something new, something students are getting acquainted with.”
McElwee said the additional vegetables would add to the product the school might buy locally. In recent years, McElwee worked with Swinton to purchase local eggs and ground beef through a Pathfinders incentive program. McElwee said the system worked well until the subsidy ran out, at which time the school stopped purchasing the products.
“Supplementing $1 per pound got it started, but is not sustainable,” said Swinton.
Swinton is looking for more cost effective ways to bring local food into schools, she said, such as identifying crops that are cheaper to grow locally than to purchase through a distributor.
McElwee had not yet heard details of her plan, but said price and labor would factor into Fairfield school’s involvement.
“It is just a matter of working out some of the logistics,” he said.
Fairfield Middle School teacher and local farmer Cory Klehm said he believes the changes to school lunch will help prepare students for Swinton’s projects. Klehm has watched students warm to the newly implemented salad bar.
“It’s great to see them become more aware of what they eat,” he said. “It would be great to have them know exactly where it comes from, and that will be the next step.”
Klehm and his family have a small farm south of town called K5 Produce, where his three children Khai, Reese and Corynn help grow vegetables to sell at the Fairfield Farmers Market.
First-hand experience has taught Klehm the impact
farming can have on kids.
“My kids have a very open diet, they’re used to eating everything they raise,” said Klehm. “It gives them a connection with nature and an understanding of what it can provide for us.”
Klehm got involved with Pathfinders through the market, which Swinton helps operate.
“She got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in helping with the Farm to School program,” he said. “I wrote a letter to the USDA in favor of it about the nutritional value of local food for the children in our district, and also of the educational standpoint.”
Swinton said Klehm’s letter played a large role in Pathfinders’ grant application.
Klehm has already begun incorporating gardening into his sixth grade science class, having students plant their own heirloom and hybrid seeds to teach them about genetics and lifecycle.
Klehm has voiced his support for the program to school administrators at the high school and middle school who he said “are all aware of it and are in favor of it.”
He said faculty will need to work together to find times for students to visit the greenhouse during a school day. He said he hopes to get the high school horticulture program involved in the program.
“The support is there, it’s just a matter of getting everything lined up and making it happen,” he said.
Aside from the greenhouse project, Swinton also will continue her work connecting farmers with school cafeterias.
Swinton said she’ll encourage local farmers to grow crops proven to be cost effective like apples, pumpkins, cucumber, green beans, cherry tomatoes and lettuce to provide consistently to area schools.
Having a school as a consistent buyer could turn young hobby farmers into professional farmers, she said. That way, she said, small farmers can make their livelihood growing one crop on 20 acres while continuing to grow a variety of produce on a small plot for their personal use or to sell at farmers’ markets.
The obstacle remaining is processing the food, said Swinton. At an Iowa Food System Policy Council meeting this fall, she and more than a dozen other local food coordinators discussed the biggest barriers to local food systems, identifying capacity of farmers, cost of product and processing.
“Our goal is to diversify the rural economy, build capacity and share equipment,” she said.
Thus far, Bloomfield and Mediapolis school districts have shown the most enthusiasm for processing, investing in equipment and asking faculty to help in the kitchen during teacher work days.
For instance, she said, Bloomfield used a teacher work day to process local pumpkin and green beans, using their new flash freezer to preserve the perishable products.
The USDA has given Swinton a year to complete her project beginning Dec. 1. Her first step, she said, will be to send soil samples from the Dexter property to the Iowa State University lab to ensure no heavy metals from the neighboring iron foundry are present in the soil. Swinton said she expects the soil will be good, but said she’ll find another location if the soil isn’t safe.
“We have a lot of support from the community,” she said.
While Swinton has well-defined goals, she said interest from schools and farmers will determine the success of the endeavor.
“I will work with whoever wants to work with me,” she said.