Gone are the days of lackluster school lunches. Today, students across the state are enjoying fresh produce grown by local farmers and learning how to make nutritious, healthy choices through the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program.
Launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Farm to School efforts bring local or regionally produced foods into school cafeterias, encourage school gardens, host farm visits, teach culinary classes and integrate food-related education into the curriculum.
Some Garden State schools are taking their involvement in the initiative to a new level through the Jersey Fresh Farm to School Recognition Program, in which both schools and farmers can apply to participate.
Through the recognition program, schools participate in the annual Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week in September, established by Gov. Chris Christie in January 2011, and National Farm to School Month in October. Schools should also serve and promote Jersey Fresh produce and establish a school garden. Farmers are expected to provide an anticipated list of Jersey Fresh produce items they will grow, participate in annual events with area schools, and meet other requirements including food safety.
“By helping children understand where their food comes from, I think they will be more likely to make healthy choices in their diets,” says New Jersey Department of Agriculture Division of Food and Nutrition Director Rose Tricario. “Those are habits we’re going to help them cultivate that they’re going to take with them through adulthood.”
The New Jersey Department of Agriculture also works with the state’s Farm to School Network, a statewide nonprofit that focuses on improving school meals, promoting locally grown produce and educating children through school gardens. As the state lead for the National Farm to School Network, the organization collaborates with schools, parents, state agencies, nonprofits, farmers, produce distributors and more, to create healthy changes in New Jersey school systems.
“When kids start eating fruits and vegetables they’ve grown, they’re more likely to try new things,” says Beth Feehan, director and founding member of the New Jersey Farm to School Network. “This helps fight the obesity epidemic, and these kids can be the change in their families.”