Sarasota County Schools continues to expand its Farm to School program to provide students with healthy local food.
Before Beverly Girard took over as director of Food and Nutrition Services for Sarasota County Schools nearly three decades ago, the school district was getting its produce all the way from the other side of the country.
“We were bringing in oranges and tomatoes from California when we have tomatoes in neighboring Manatee County and have citrus growers all over the state of Florida—it didn’t make any sense,” Girard said.
What did make sense for Girard was sowing the seeds for a Farm to School program that would provide nutritious meals for students sourced from local growers.
“A Florida orange may not look as perfect as one from California, but the bottom line is that it’s from Florida,” she said. “With this program, we wanted to help people reimagine their food supply.”
Bringing local produce to school cafeterias was a personal endeavor for Girard whose deep connection to the land sprouted from her upbringing as a farm girl in Indiana.
The school district began ordering local produce in 2007, starting small with single deliveries of corn on the cob and green beans. Girard, however, had bigger goals in mind. She wanted to establish one of the first comprehensive farm to school programs in Florida. The problem was there was no way to transport large amounts of produce from the farms to the schools. In 2009, Girard went through the school district's bid system and developed the “Farm Fresh” produce bid, one of the first initiatives of its kind in the state. The bid offered incentives for distributors who could supply produce grown in-state. The school district now works with Charles Bliss Wholesale Produce in Tampa.
The Farm to School program only grew more ambitious from there and moved beyond fruits and vegetables to also providing beef from Miami and dairy from Lecanto. Some of the school district’s current partners also include Watercress Farms and Homestead Hydroponic Farm in Myakka City and Jones Potato Farm in Parrish.
The Food and Nutrition Services department’s overarching goal is to purchase half of its produce from local and regional growers. In the 2014-2015 school year, 30-67% of all fruits and vegetables served came from Florida farms during each month of the growing season, which lasts from November to May.
Girard and Farm to School coordinator Zach Glorioso cited that one of the primary benefits for buying local is more nutritious meals for the school district’s approximate 45,000 students. Glorioso said the nutritional density of a fruit or vegetable starts to deteriorate the longer its been off the vine.
“The closer we can get that food from harvest to the cafeteria, the better, but we really all should be eating within 100 miles of where we live,” Glorioso explained.
The Farm to School program has also brought benefits to farmers and the greater community by providing growers with new markets and supporting the local economy. The school district’s purchasing power has enabled Homestead Hydroponic Farm to grow their operation by 5,000 square feet.
"We feel lucky to share our passion of bringing Sarasota’s public schools high-quality produce," said Sarah Whannel of Homestead Hydroponic Farm. "It’s important to us because we both grew up and went to school here."
The program’s initiatives also provide an opportunity for the local agriculture industry to connect directly with Sarasota’s students. Jones Potato Farm, for example, have provided potato seeds for school gardens.
“When students see potatoes from Jones Potato Farm on their lunch menus, they are also seeing potatoes in their school garden ready to be harvested,” Glorioso said. “It’s about establishing this cycle where students can see where their food is coming from and providing an experiential learning opportunity for them to plant, gather and eat the food they farmed themselves.”
This summer, the Food and Nutrition Services department received a total of $175,000 in grants from the USDA to continue its work in agricultural science education. The grant will allow the department to establish a chapter of FoodCorps, a service network that is part of AmeriCorps dedicated to showing students how to grow, prepare and eat healthy food through hands-on learning activities like working in school gardens.
“We want to use this grant to educate kids at a young age about the importance of fruits and vegetables, and to instill that in them so they become lifelong consumers of healthy food,” Girard said. “It’s one thing to provide a fresh apple or orange, but it’s another thing to get kids to actively pick up that piece of fruit and consume it. We want these kids to grow into adults who understand sustainability, agriculture and how it affects our overall community."
The Farm to School program has come along way since it took root more than a decade ago, but Girard wants to continue pushing its efforts forward. Her next goal is to create a production farm to grow food on school district property while maintaining relationships with local farmers.
“We can plant South Florida fruits like avocados, mangos, papaya, Jamaican cherry trees or starfruit — produce that no one imagines being on a school lunch tray,” Girard said. “Our vision is to plant these trees that will provide for our students for years to come."