School lunches are a well-known weekday horror – rubbery hotdogs, cardboard-like pizza. Some students may believe the meal could crawl right off the tray.
The thought of a child going home and asking their parents to make food they were given at school? Ridiculous. Children often bring packed lunches to schools.
However, the Mississippi Farm to School Network is inspiring a new love of healthy, locally grown food served in public schools.
Director Sunny Young Baker founded the company with Dorothy Grady-Scarborough. They wanted to bring farm fresh foods into school systems as “an amazing solution to the health crisis in the country,” Baker said.
While Farm to School officially began in 2015, these ideas were in motion by the early 1990s. Curious school districts were asking how it could work with government regulation and how to find farmers. With guidance, conferences, and marketing, Baker said the organization helps make those connections.
“We don’t give (children) enough opportunity to eat food that is good for them, and is also delicious,” Baker said. “Kale chips are a big winner … When we first did kale chips at Oxford Elementary, I went to Kroger next week and all the shelves were out of kale … Students were asking their families to cook it at home, and it’s not like we told them to do that.”
The use of local crops doesn’t have to be restricted to just one break hour.
“A lot of people pigeon-hole local produce into just being about vegetables and lunchtime,” said Baker, “but Farm to School program can be about any meal of the day. Many Mississippi schools do breakfast, which can be made with local grits and local eggs.”
Emma Counce, a University of Mississippi sophomore who has been working for Farm to School for four years, said the statewide network helps make connections. Both programs coordinate with schools to “educate kids on food, where it’s from, how it’s prepared.” Farm to School encourages schools to make gardens, and sets up taste tests to motivate the school systems to integrate cafeterias.
Counce said she was never around children before volunteering at Oxford Elementary and Oxford Intermediate. She said her favorite part is “seeing [the kids] in the gardens, eating the foods, and just how they react.”
She said many children have a “disconnect” with producing foods, and there is so much they haven’t been properly taught. “You can ask them, ‘Where do carrots come from?,’ and they’ll say something like, ‘Trees!’”
But convincing schools to change their menus from easy-made meals to fresh produce is no easy task. “We have so many struggles,” Baker said. “We’re up against old school ways of thinking; that a kid won’t touch a vegetable, so it’s not worth it.”
Farm to School’s competition to tackle includes sugary cereals, frozen nuggets and pizzas.
“Those foods have huge marketing budgets and come up with cartoon characters,” Baker said. “It’s so easy for them to win kids over. The carrot lobby doesn’t have that kind of money.”
Additionally, Baker said preparing local farm produce requires additional skills from lunchroom workers, since they sometimes heat and serve meals. Extra effort potentially raises costs, but Baker said the Farm to School Network wholeheartedly backs the beneficial effects.
While Farm to School is a national organization, there is a particular bond to Mississippi culture. Baker said the state is an amazing place to do this type of work.
“There is such a strong connection to food and eating in general, and being together around the dinner table,” she said. “Foods grow so well here. We have the best farmland in the country in the Mississippi Delta. The closeness of food and community makes the Farm to School Network very logical here.”
The Farm to School Network could also help Mississippi financially, Baker said.
“While our number one export is agriculture,” said Baker, which is reaffirmed by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce as 29 percent of the workforce is agriculture-related, “we import 90 percent of the food we eat here. We could bring that money right back to the state, supporting our own community.”
To fulfill the plan, some changes need to be made at the source. Mississippi farms are designed for mass production of commodities, “growing cotton, soy, corn, which is all heavily sprayed [with pesticides]. We need them to transition to small scale operations,” said Baker, “and be as close to organic and self-sustainable as possible.”
The Farm to School Network has high aspirations, and leaders are filled with hope.
“By working together, communities can give Farm to School a try,” said Baker. “We have been lucky to have great support from the Department of Agriculture and education. And the school districts that have taken this on have been so excited and engaged.”
Besides inspiring future farmers, the “goal is for Farm to School to happen in every district, and every child be exposed to local foods, and because of that, we can make a dent in childhood obesity.”