Statewide farm-to-school program proposed

A Nebraska farm-to-school program would provide locally grown and minimally processed food to elementary and secondary school students under a proposal considered Feb. 23 by the Education Committee.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist32' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Tom Brandt'>Sen. Tom Brandt</a>
Sen. Tom Brandt

LB396, introduced by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, would require the state Department of Education to hire a coordinator to administer the program, which also could provide students with hands-on learning activities, such as farm visits, cooking demonstrations and school gardening and composting programs.

The coordinator would partner with public agencies and nonprofits on a public engagement campaign and build a communication network that links farmers and schools.

They also would encourage schools to develop and improve their nutrition plans using locally grown or processed food and provide technical assistance to school food services staff, farmers, processors and distributors regarding the demand for and availability of Nebraska food products.

Brandt said a statewide farm-to-school program would benefit local producers, improve the quality and quantity of local food served in Nebraska schools and teach students where their food comes from and how it is made.

“By providing a stable, reliable market for local produce,” he said, “farm-to-school enables Nebraska communities to start recapturing a portion of the 90 percent of our school food dollars that are currently leaving the state.”

Sarah Smith, local foods consultant and fresh fruit and vegetable program coordinator at the state Department of Education, testified in support of the bill on the department’s behalf. She said the department’s current farm-to-school programs are limited and that a statewide network would provide the structure needed to help more schools and farmers navigate the complex food procurement system.

“Nebraska can lead the nation in community health and well-being,” Smith said, “celebrating our agricultural heritage and cultural diversity, with farm-to-school as the vehicle.”

Marcus Urban testified in support of the bill on behalf of seven agricultural organizations. He said the lack of direct and consistent access to local farms prevents some large, urban school districts from participating more fully in current farm-to-school programs. A statewide coordinator would address that problem, Urban said.

“We especially appreciate that this bill promotes a farm-to-school model in both an economic and educational package that can be maximized in school districts and communities all across Nebraska,” he said.

Joan Ruskamp, who farms and feeds cattle with her husband near Dodge, also testified in support. For the past 15 years, she said, they have held tours for students at their farm as part of a Nebraska Farm Bureau program. Ruskamp said LB396 would introduce more students to the people who raise and grow their food and show them the variety of career opportunities in agriculture.

“In addition to providing a healthy diet,” she said, “we can benefit our school kids and families by introducing them to agriculture through more direct interaction with farmers and ranchers.”

Also in support was Nathan Beacom of the Center for Rural Affairs. Approximately 30 percent of Nebraska schools participate in current farm-to-school programs, he said, but they spend less than 20 percent of their food budgets on locally grown food.

Beacom suggested that LB396 could increase that amount if it also required the coordinator to study food supply chain obstacles.

“With more streamlined distribution, consistent supply and processing that could extend the life of foods,” he said, “the price point for local foods could be lowered, thereby making it easier for schools to purchase greater quantities of produce locally.”

No one testified in opposition to the bill and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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