Vardaman, Miss., sweet potato farmer Randle Wright talks about healthy food with Sherman Avenue Elementary Pre-K students.

Vardaman, Miss., sweet potato farmer Randle Wright talks about healthy food with Sherman Avenue Elementary Pre-K students.

Thanks to thriving Farm to School programs across the state, locally grown products are becoming staples in Mississippi schools.

“Farm to School in Mississippi is growing,” says Paige Manning, director of marketing and public relations for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC). “More schools are getting involved because they want to know where their food is coming from, and they want to support local farmers and communities.”

DoD Fresh Program

While schools can purchase Mississippi-grown products directly from farmers, they can also participate in the Department of Defense (DoD) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program – typically known as DoD Fresh – which is administered through the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE).

The process begins when MDAC identifies participating farmers and available produce for the school year. Next, MDE relays this information to schools across the state, and nutrition directors select the products they would like to serve and determine the amount needed. Finally, MDAC lets the farmers know the amount of produce they need, and when and where it should be delivered.

According to Manning, the Mississippi-grown products available as part of the DoD Fresh program for the 2014-2015 school year include collard greens, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, green beans, strawberries, blueberries, butter beans, yellow squash, Southern peas, zucchini, turnip greens, corn, green bell peppers, grape tomatoes, eggplant and Satsuma oranges.

Randle Wright, owner of N&W Farms in Vardaman, first participated in the DoD Fresh Program about five years ago. Wright grows approximately 1,300 acres of sweet potatoes and says he will deliver 3,300 cases to be used in Mississippi schools for the 2014-2015 school year.

“Fruits and vegetables are the healthiest choices for you to eat, and I think what you grow up learning to eat is what you’ll eat throughout your lifetime,” Wright says. “It’s good to get a healthy lifestyle in place at a young age.”

farm to school student with sweet potatoes

A student at Sherman Avenue Elementary enjoys Mississippi-grown sweet potatoes for lunch.

Major Growth

While the DoD Fresh Program has been in operation since 2002, it has become more popular in recent years. According to Priscilla Ammerman, director of purchasing and food distribution for MDE, this year schools ordered 32,000 cases, totaling $1.034 million, through the DoD Fresh program, nearly four times greater than last year’s amount of $265,000 and 8,100 cases.

Ammerman and Manning attribute the program’s growth to various factors, including regional workshops that brought farmers and school nutrition directors together to provide information about DoD Fresh.

MDAC offers a revolving funds program that enables farmers to receive payment approximately five days after delivering their produce.

MDAC also assists farmers by offering the GAP/GHP (Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices) Certification Cost-Share Program. Because all DoD Fresh farmers must be GAP/GHP certified, which ensures that all fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored in the safest possible manner, MDAC covers 75 percent of the cost up to $500 per year.

Farm to School week

Farm to School Week, held annually during the first full week of October, is another way Mississippi schools participate in the Farm to School initiative.

See Also:  From Field to Fork

Throughout the week, students can meet and eat lunch with local farmers and learn about healthy eating.

Growing Lunch, a school garden grant, was also available. Administered through MDAC with the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, eligible schools received up to $500 to purchase school garden supplies.

“I think all schools will eventually embrace this program because this is what we need for the state and the children,” says Gail Kavanaugh, child nutrition director for the Vicksburg Warren School District. “Year by year, I see the demand growing.”

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