Green USAO Serves as Leader in Farm to School Program
CHICKASHA -- Students will find fresher, healthier and better tasting produce from area farms when they return to the college cafeteria this fall at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. This month, USAO became a leader in the statewide Farm To School Program -- an idea conceived by Rep. Susan Winchester of Chickasha and former Sen. Daisy Lawler of Comanche in legislation they authored.
" This step is a win for everybody," said USAO President John Feaver. " Students get the freshest food, area farmers get more local customers, and taxpayers get the most intelligent and efficient advance in the food chain. The program will not only produce healthier students, but as well provide them new community service opportunities to help facilitate more sustainable economic networks benefiting the region and the state. We applaud Susan and Daisy for putting the ball into play. We're delighted to be a leader in the process."
Farm To School is a partnership between farmers and schools that brings to the cafeteria a wide range of Oklahoma-grown products -- peaches and melons grown in Stratford, watermelons from Hinton, wheat grown in western Oklahoma and milled in Hobart, squash and tomatoes from Yarnaby and much more.
" We're thrilled," said Jim Lester, general manager of Sodexho Campus Services at USAO. " Our students will notice the difference. This stuff is greener, fresher, healthier, and not transported from the coasts or stored for weeks."
To a trained chef like Lester, it's all about taste.
" Once you pick ears of corn, the sugar starts turning to starch and the great taste disappears," Lester said. " We're proud to be one of the first colleges in Oklahoma to join this innovative state program and bring the freshest food possible to students and our thousands of campus visitors. Tomatoes grown a thousand miles from here are picked green, artificially ripened under refrigeration or gas, and stay flavorless. But 'local' tomatoes are vine-ripened. They don't need weeks of storage when they're grown 50 miles from campus. Yeah, you could say we're pretty excited about this project."
For USAO students, faculty and campus guests, the first signs of change will hit the cafeteria line next month, Lester said.
" In the middle of August, we will begin receiving seedless watermelons and cantaloupe and add sweet corn, cucumbers, canary melons, yellow and zucchini squash in September. October will bring butternut squash and fall tomatoes and maybe more."
The buzz started at USAO when Bergundy Nelson, executive assistant to the president, became an active gardener and contributor to the local farmers market. Like other gardeners, she shares fresh vegetables with friends and co-workers, and wondered, " Why can't we do this on a larger scale with lots of area growers and schools?" Then she learned about Farm to School.
To Nelson, making USAO a leader in fresh food on campus is right for a dozen reasons, including environmental, health, taste, economic advantage for small farmers, public image for the college, political leadership, energy savings -- and even community pride.
" This is simply logical," said Nelson, whose interest in Farm To School was kind of â€¦ well, organic.
" I got interested in this and found out about Farm To School through attending conferences put on by the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture," she explained. " Of course I attended because of my interest in gardening, herbs, farmers market production, etc. I am a very strong advocate of buying local produce, meats, etc., and this program just makes sense for the Oklahoma economy. In fact, one source estimates Oklahoma farmers could sell $6 million in produce to schools alone. This also makes sense for consumers because of food safety and security issues, more nutritious and fresh produce and healthier people.
" The more Oklahomans know about this program, the more they will support it," Nelson said.
As a longtime advocate for community advancement, USAO President John Feaver applauds the move as " good for all Oklahomans." He wonders whether healthier children in the public schools and healthier adults in the colleges perform better academically.
" Studies prove that diet, performance and behavior are interrelated," Nelson said. " I'd like to know that my tax dollars being spent on school lunch programs are providing healthy options for students and going to support local farmers and keeping tax dollars in the Oklahoma cycle."
Farm To School is an outreach of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Listed among its many partners are 16 councils, agencies and foundations. The Oklahoma Farm To School Program was created in by House Bill 2655 and signed by Gov. Brad Henry in June 2006. A leading partner in the process is the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Poteau.
" I am excited and proud that USAO is a state leader in supporting Oklahoma rural communities by providing wonderfully fresh and nutritious produce to its students," said Kerr Center spokeswoman Anita Poole. " I hope that other universities will follow USAO's lead so that students across the state can have access to fruits and vegetable grown by their neighbors. There are so many educational opportunities in nutrition, science, and rural sociology that can flow from this type of partnership."
USAO joins the University of Oklahoma as a leader in higher education in the program. Nearly 50 school districts will participate in the program this fall.
More information about where to find Oklahoma-grown food is available at http://www.okgrown.com/" >www.okgrown.com. More information about the Farm To School program is available at http://www.okfarmtoschool.com/" >www.okfarmtoschool.com.
" The main focus is fresh fruits and vegetables in the schools right now but eventually the program will include other value added food items" , said Chris Kirby, state program director. " We continue to expand the network of producers, partner schools, distributors and community partnerships."
" I am continually looking for growers who can be matched directly to a school district close to their farm that can offer a more diverse selection of produce, farm visits for kids, possible summer employment to students, etc.," Kirby said.
Obstacles abound, but Kirby believes the program will flourish.
Besides produce, Farm to School offers Oklahoma beef jerky from Fairview, wheat flour milled in Hobart, and Grandma Opal's whole wheat cookies made in Hunter, with more value added selections coming. Besides actual food products, the program hopes to expand its learning opportunities for children, such as the Veggie U indoor classroom lab for 4th graders and school gardens.
USAO earned national attention as a " green university" in 2002 when it launched Oklahoma's first energy performance contract at an Oklahoma school. The program shaved more than $300,000 per year from campus utility costs, earning USAO praise from the National Energy Foundation.
" We're constantly striving to make USAO a leader in every way possible, Feaver said. " Farm To School gives our students advantages they can see -- and taste."