Schools being encouraged to buy local

(Source: KAIT-TV)
(Source: KAIT-TV)

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - People are working to bring farmers and schools together.

The Arkansas Department of Agriculture has teamed up with the Arkansas Farm to School Group to host a "Local Conversations Event."

Program Manager for Access to Healthy Food Research Group at Arkansas Children's Research Institute, Jenna Rhodes, said it's about lighting the spark to a new idea.

"We're really trying to get people excited about Farm to School," Rhodes said. "Farm to School is really about increasing access to healthy fruits and vegetables. Teaching kids about where food comes from and why it's important. Also, getting schools to purchase from local growers to serve in school meal programs."

Rhodes said there are a number of health advantages with buying locally.

"I think there are lots of options for healthy fruits and vegetables," Rhodes said. "We do know the shorter time between harvest and consumption, there's definitely more nutrients in food. They've traveled a fewer distance so it's a smaller environmental impact, as well. And really the purchase of local fruits and vegetables really supports our local communities and economies."

April Muhammad of Arkansas Gourmet Rice Company said they are a value-added rice producer.

She traveled from Little Rock to Jonesboro Friday to get all the information she could.

"We wanted to learn more about the program the state has to offer," Muhammad said. "We know the Governor's putting a lot into increasing the economy in the state for the farmers and also for the value-added producers. So, we wanted to learn more and be a part of it."

Rhodes said she was pleased with the turn out for the event.

"I think things are going great," Rhodes said. "We've had a great turn out. It's a really diverse crowd. We have farmers and producers, both of fruits and vegetables. We've got rice and beef producers in attendance today. We have child nutrition directors from local school districts. We have support organizations who are really supporting both farmers and schools in attendance today. Everyone who is here today is really in support of increasing farm to school across our state."

Muhammad said she got some good information.

"I was surprised," Muhammad said. "At how many wonderful ideas there are to help children understand where food comes from and how to prepare it. And the best way to choose meals. I didn't realize that as adults we set so many poor examples for our children. Because really, we're teaching them what we learned. And since that was not part of the education for most people, we're behind the eight ball. This really helped us understand better how to teach the children and teach ourselves as well."

District 53 State Representative Dan Sullivan attended the event.

Sullivan said he came because he met with the people from Farm to School at the Capitol a few weeks ago with some other legislators.

"I just wanted to come out locally," Sullivan said. "And support the program. It's a great opportunity for small businesses, particularly, to work with our schools and our local growers and our farmers' markets and such to really engage in a new way. I really like the health benefits that were discussed today by UAMS. I appreciate the research they're doing. And the outcomes, I hope, will improve the health of our students and the health of our economy through small business."

Rhodes said Farm to School is a "triple win", for schools, kids and farmers alike.

"Schools really are interested in serving great nutritious meals," Rhodes said. "There's a huge market opportunity for our local growers to rally get into school meals. There's so many great programs that exist. So, today is really about educating both sides. Schools and institutions and the farmers about how to do it. So, there's a lot of questions. There is also a lot of misinformation that is out there. Really today we're just trying to start a conversation in this region and really get folks connected."

Rhodes said one problem they've faced is the misinformation that's out there.

"One misconception," Rhodes said. "Is farmers think they need to be able to supply the entire school. Let's say all their lettuce. And that's not true. A farmer can be a piece of the solution to feeding kids. So, a farmer may only be able to handle 5% of the lettuce need for a school. And that's doable. Also, something I think that is not known is schools are not required to purchase from a farmer who has GAP certification. I think a lot of schools want to see that from their farmers, but it is not a state requirement. So, schools really do have the ability to purchase from anyone they want to."

Rhodes said, above all, Farm to School is the healthy choice for an areas kids.

"I think the health impacts are very important," Rhodes said. "The health benefits of eating really great fresh fruits and vegetables. I think Farm to School is a really great mechanism for us to get kids excited about food. To experience growing it in a garden environment, to learn about it through nutrition education and then to be eating it in the school meal programs. I really do think Farm to School is a really great solution for a lot of the issues we're facing in our communities related to health. As well as a great economic development tool.

An event is being hosted in each of the regions.

Their final event will be on April 13 in Bentonville.

They will be at the Brightwater Facility.

For more information about the program Farm to School, click here.

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