Farm to School brings local produce into the classroom

BY JOE HITCHON | JULY 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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Farm to School officials say they hope bringing local produce and teaching students about where their food comes from will encourage healthy food habits.

The Iowa City School District held its first of two Farmer Fairs July 13, in which students were able to learn about local produce and to plant in school gardens.

The organizations involved said they hope the children's exposure to farming and fresh produce will have a lasting effect on the way they view their food and encourage them to make healthy food choices in the long term.

"Research shows that if kids grow their own food and help prepare that food, they are more likely to eat and to try new foods," said Heather Widmayer, coordinator of Farm to School program. "So the more opportunities we can give them to try this, the more likely they will be to eat healthy throughout their lifetime."

Parents may be surprised to learn that getting their kids to try new foods was not the main challenge for the organizers of the fair. The real challenge was getting the students to think about where their food comes from and the effort involved in growing it, and school officials aid that with school gardens and the use of fresh produce in school lunches.

The School District has seen an increase of three to 15 school gardens in the last two years.

"We're helping them connect with food, so they know that what their eating actually came from the ground and was planted and grown by somebody," said Mia Arndt, a volunteer from Iowa City Summer Solutions, while demonstrating the basics of gardening to kids in a small, raised-bed on the playground. "I think it teaches good stewardship to remember that our planet provides for us — the soil, the water, the Sun. We need a healthy environment to be able to grow our food, and if there is a disconnect, this can be hard for kids to remember."

The produce grown in the school gardens is prepared in one of five different production kitchens throughout the district and offered in the school lunches as well as to the elementary schools they serve.

Building that connection is certainly one of the goals of the School District's Farm to School program.

The event was the result of a collaboration among local organizations, including Iowa City Summer Solutions, University of Iowa Student Gardeners, Burt Family Food Services, and AmeriCorps volunteers from the Johnson County Department of Public Health.

The Farm to School program involves a number of different initiatives including educational programs such as Farmer Fairs, which provide kids a firsthand opportunity to learn about, prepare , and taste new healthy foods.

"The Farmer Fair is like an in-school field trip that brings food and nutrition educators and farmers into the schools and the kids rotate through six or seven different hands-on activities all related to healthy food and healthy eating," Widmayer said.

Along with getting their hands dirty in the garden, students were able to try samples of fresh food and were able to take home a scorecard of the foods they liked best.

"It's been fun, and I never thought I would like zucchini," said sixth-grader Elena Dryer.

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