There’s a movement taking the nation by storm: putting more local food on lunch trays by strengthening the connection between farms and schools. New Mexico is joining this endeavor, with 56 school districts allocating funds to participate in the 2018-19 school year. These districts allocated $1.15 million to buying food grown in New Mexico for their cafeteria meals through a program called the New Mexico Grown Local Produce Grant for School Meals. The NM Public Education Department (PED) and the NM Farmers’ Marketing Association (NMFMA) are working together to grow the program even more.
Two Birds with One Stone
The New Mexico Grown grant program is part of a larger initiative called Farm to School, which PED has administered since 2014, and encourages schools to locally purchase fruits, vegetables and beans. For NMFMA Executive Director Denise Miller, the program has two simple, interconnected goals: one is to feed children with healthy, fresh food that tastes delicious and encourages them to eat fruits and vegetables. The other is to support local farms by creating a stable market for fruit and vegetable sales, Miller says.
An institutional market like a school is critical for a farm’s diversified business strategy, according to Miller. Kendal Chavez, Farm to School specialist with the PED’s Student Success & Wellness Bureau, agrees and says communication is vital to helping both entities understand each other’s needs. “In the past, districts called farmers late in the growing season, not understanding the produce had already been sold or allocated to other customers,” Chavez says. Conversely, farmers incorrectly assumed districts were already supplied with their basics, from apples to beans. Streamlining procurement systems and increasing communication are two components being piloted this year, Chavez says.
As an example, at meetings held last winter, farmers heard districts relate how many thousands of pounds of produce they purchase each year and what they want and need to buy. “Famers attending those meetings made decisions on what they would be growing this year based on those conversations,” Miller says.
From Eating to Teaching
Buying local creates teachable moments as well. Some districts have 100% local days in their cafeterias, where every item on the menu has been locally sourced, Chavez says. Others do an all-local, all-week event to get the kids excited about local food. “Districts are making Farm to School a thing they believe in and regularly practice,” she says. “It connects kids back to local food through something they interact with every day, which is a breakfast or lunch at their school.”