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Why Having A Farm To School Program Helps Our School Kids

The 2017-2018 School Year is underway. While our school children are busy filling their minds with new information, our school district’s Food Services Department is busy filling their tummies with healthy, locally-grown foods. Those healthy foods grow smarter, stronger kids.

A lot has changed in school cafeterias over the years. Gone are the days where most of the food served was pre-packaged or canned. Today, if you step into the cafeteria at Waggoner School while lunch is being served, you may be surprised at what you see. Every day a beautifully displayed salad bar tempts students with fresh, local greens, vegetables and fruits. Whole wheat breads and buns have replaced white breads. Meats prepared on site are lean and protein-filled. And the food is delicious!

What has brought about these changes? Back in 2011, a group of interested Winters community members began meeting to figure out how we could boost the number of healthy foods served to our school children. After all, Winters is surrounded by working farms which grow some of the best food in the world. Couldn’t the farmers and schools come together?

Yes, they can and they have. What came out of those initial meetings was the creation of the Winters Farm to School Program…an all-volunteer non-profit devoted to raising funds for the purchase of fresh fruits, nuts and produce for our school meal programs. With these funds, Cathy Olsen, Food Services Director for the Winters Joint Unified School District, purchases fruits and vegetables fresh off the farm from farmers here in Winters and Yolo County. “It doesn’t get more fresh or local than this,” says Olsen. “When Terra Firma Farm here in Winters makes a delivery of fresh tomatoes to our school kitchen, those tomatoes are served as part of the salad made that day.”

“My staff and I give kids the opportunity to try new fruits and vegetables all the time,” says Olsen. “Whether it’s the Harvest of the Month, or something entirely new, we serve it. The younger kids especially enjoy tasting something they’ve never eaten before. Those who try a new fruit or vegetable get to be part of the Two Bite Club or the Asparagus Hall of Fame. It makes eating new things fun. Parents have told me that their kids now ask them to buy the veggies they are eating at school for their meals at home”, says Olsen. “When that happens I know we are making a positive difference in our kid’s lives.”

School meals are a big opportunity for making positive changes in improving student health and academic performance. In the Winters School District, 1000 meals are served every day. On average, students in America receive 35% of their daily calories at school; some as high as 50%.

Why does this matter? It matters because our schools have a significant role to play in the well-being and academic achievement of our children. Freshly prepared, healthy school meals are part of the strategy that helps school districts succeed.

How is this true? According to the Center for Ecoliteracy, healthier school meals grow healthier children. Well-nourished children are tardy or absent less often. They have fewer behavioral problems, require fewer visits to the school nurse, and are less susceptible to obesity, diabetes and a variety of other health problems.

Healthier school meals enhance learning. Improving school meals can make an almost immediate difference in academic performance. Better-quality diets are linked to higher test scores, longer attention spans, increased work capacity, and more class participation.

Feeding our children local foods from nearby farms builds a stronger local economy. When meals use food grown locally, local jobs are created and more money remains in the community. Every dollar spent locally equals $1.86 added to the economy.

Healthier school meals are even good for our environment. Freshly prepared school meals can reduce the need for processed foods, minimize wasteful packaging, shorten the distance food is shipped, and create incentives for healthier agricultural practices.

School meals are especially important to some students. One in four students in Yolo County lives in food insecure households. So not only does feeding children healthier school foods promote their overall health and well-being, it addresses the issue of hunger as well.

“As we launch into the new school year, says Olsen, “we can be thankful for the generosity of our community. With the growing support of local farmers, businesses and community members, together with Winters Farm to School, we are making a positive difference in the lives of our children.”

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