"Our new home at Farm Fresh RI allows even greater access beyond the school environment. We seek to inform community members of the positive economic, environmental and health benefits that come from supporting our local agricultural producers.
The Rhode Island Farm to School program, a local branch of a national organization that works to connect elementary, middle, and high schools with local farms for cafeteria meals, last month began operating under Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a Rhode Island-based agricultural advocacy organization.
Kimberly Clark, who has served as the RI Farm to School lead, discussed the program’s accomplishments and how the organization’s new structure will focus on local agriculture and efforts to increase access to fresh and healthy foods.
PBN: The organization kicked off, unofficially in 1999, which some would say was ahead of the organic/natural/plant-based food movement. How did RI Farm to School come to be an innovator?
CLARK: The Rhode Island Farm to School Project was created and administered by the nonprofit Kids First. From 1998-2011, Kids First worked at all levels provide support, technical assistance and educational programs that implement community-owned school health and wellness policies. Kids First facilitated sustainable change in school food service by cutting through the challenges and complexities of the school food environment and creating community-owned improvements. These improvements can be seen in all foods offered and served to children and school staff.
PBN: What has been the organization’s biggest accomplishment since then?
CLARK: Participation in the Rhode Island Farm to School program has grown from only a handful of school districts in 2005 to participation by all 36 in 2010. We have been successful in increasing the amount (from 20,000 pounds in 2005 to 367,000 pounds in 2011) and variety (now 38 different products) of RI grown and produced foods purchased by the schools.
PBN: What are you concentrating on right now?
CLARK: Rhode Island Farm to School at Farm Fresh Rhode Island is looking forward to continued development of our network of local growers and expansion of our programs from public school districts to preschool/child care centers and college/university settings. We are also seeking funding to pilot a light processing and flash freezing project, which will help to increase the amount of local produce available to school purchasers, extend the season during which the produce is available and further develop the economic opportunity for Rhode Island growers and producers.
PBN: What is your organization’s opinion on the never-ending debate between school system and parent responsibility regarding children’s nutrition. Who is more accountable? Is it worth the effort to provide good nutrition at school when it could be negated at home?
CLARK: The Rhode Island Farm to School project has always included entire school communities in our outreach efforts. Our new home at Farm Fresh RI allows even greater access beyond the school environment. We seek to inform community members of the positive economic, environmental and health benefits that come from supporting our local agricultural producers. Serving the entire community helps to bridge gaps that may exist in what students are served in school meals and at home. Through Farm to School education programs children and the adults who teach and care for them will learn about good nutrition, gain an appreciation for locally grown foods, and develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.
PBN: How easy it for you to retain school and state support?
CLARK: Since the Rhode Island Farm to School program’s inception, we have received the unwavering support of the R.I. Department of Agriculture and Department of Enviornmental Management. We have also been blessed with a Farm to School champion in the R.I. Department of Education. Child Nutrition Program Specialist Becky Bessette has been instrumental in encouraging all 36 public school districts to include local agricultural products in their school food programs. Our strong partnerships with school food service providers including ARAMARK, Chartwells, Sodexo and the self-operating North Kingstown district allow for the kind of collaboration that results in strong Farm to School programs in schools throughout Rhode Island.