It has become one of my goals, given the national political scene, to report some positive stories from the State House in Montpelier. This week, that bright spot is the Farm to School (F2S) program. It is always a delight to have children at the State House and to have them testify.
The Rozo McLaughlin Farm to School Grant Program was created by legislation passed in 2006 – the first grants were awarded in 2007. Rozo (Rosemary) McLaughlin was a fellow legislator from South Royalton who was a strong supporter of education and healthy lifestyle choices. She, unfortunately, died at a young age of an aggressive form of cancer just before the election in 2006. The other person who deserves great credit for creation of F2S is Rep. Mitzi Johnson, now Speaker of the House.
The original goal of F2P was to get more, fresh, locally-produced food into our school meals with the hope that children would learn to make better choices regarding their diets. Childhood obesity rates were rising and concern about the health implications of the trend was worrying. Children were coming to school hungry and as a result their ability to learn and their behavior were affected. It is now recognized that proper nutrition is extremely important to a child’s success in school.
This year, the House passed a resolution declaring Feb. 8th Farm to School Awareness Day at the State House. Folks from all over Vermont came to testify and participate in the afternoon celebration in the cafeteria where new grant recipients were announced. Students came to share their recipes and food samples as well as their stories about establishing gardens to grow vegetables for their own school’s use as well as other community purposes.
The morning hearing included witnesses from a number of State agencies including the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and the Department of Health. Two eighth-graders from Twinfield and Maple Hill Schools testified about the impact their vegetable gardens had, not only on their own schools but on their larger community. Once a month the students prepare a meal for the Good Samaritan shelter, which as one of the girls said “put a face on homelessness” for them. A third grade boy from Flood Brook School spoke about growing a “Three Sisters” garden (corn, beans, and squash) and how being exposed to different kinds of vegetables through taste-testing activities had widened his horizons. The principal from Johnson Elementary School testified that since students were better nourished he had fewer children in his office with behavior problems.
The statistics are impressive. Over the ten years of grant making 138 schools have benefitted, 40,000 students have been reached, $1,000,300 in state funds have been invested, and $500,000 in additional funds have been leveraged. We especially thank Leigh and Charlie Merinoff, Meadows Bee Farm, and Leigh’s Bees of Windham for their generous contribution to the F2S effort.
According to the literature provided by Hunger Free Vermont, children who are food insecure are more likely to have poor quality diets and nutrient deficiencies; chronic illnesses and increased hospital visits; cognitive, physical, and emotional delays; lack of school readiness; increased aggression, depression, and hyperactive behavior; diminished academic achievement; and low wage-earning capacity as adults. The definition of food insecurity is “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” There are multiple benefits if we can tap into and end that cycle when people are young.
Competitive planning and implementation grants are offered to Vermont schools to create programs with a goal of including more local foods in classrooms, cafeterias, and communities – the three “Cs”. Advocates refer to the “Virtuous Cycle” – if you improve child nutrition, you reduce child hunger, and strengthen local economies.
During the 2013-2014 school year, school districts spent $915,000 on local products such as vegetables, fruit, eggs, beef, poultry, milk, cheese, yogurt, cider, and maple syrup, helping our farmers and, in turn, the State economy. Every dollar spent by schools on local food contributes an additional sixty cents to the local economy so, all told, school consumption of local food contributed $1.4 million to Vermont’s economic bottom line.
To put this in perspective, that $915,000 is 5.6% of the total $16 million that is spent on food by Vermont schools. If we were to increase that amount, just think of the benefit it would have to our local growers and processors as well as the larger economy.
Strengthening school meal programs assures that no student goes hungry, which improves the lives of food insecure students as discussed above. Children get better nutrition and develop a taste for healthier foods, which is something they potentially share with their families. The goal is for children to get four to five servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
Commissioner of Health, Dr. Harry Chen, shared some statistics that are very encouraging. As consumption of vegetables has increased by 1%, the childhood obesity rate has decreased from 29% to 26%.
Between 2010 and 2015 child hunger has decreased for the following reasons: More school meals are being consumed including breakfast, lunch, and, in some cases, dinner – last year, our children ate 13,449,972 school meals; almost 14,000 students have access to universal school meals, which have improved in nutrition and quality; F2S programs have expanded; summer meal sites have almost doubled; and there are eight times the number of afterschool meal programs, which are serving over 7,000 students.
We can feel very proud of these achievements but the work is not over – more than 17,000 Vermont children still live in food insecure families. Assuring that every child gets enough healthy, fresh, local food is a win, win, win proposal and a goal we need to continue to strive for.