What started as a simple presentation about connecting students to local food in Stark County has grown into a large initiative with 12 school districts, federal funding and a lot of community collaboration.
It’s part of the national Farm to School program, which works to provide students with access to nutritious food, while supporting local farmers. It helps students understand where their food comes from and how food choices affect their health, environment and community.
After Ohio State University Extension Educator Heather Neikirk brought the concept to Stark County’s school food service directors, a stakeholder advisory team was developed, which received a $43,831 Farm to School federal planning grant.
“Many of these districts were doing parts of Farm to School without knowing it, but realized a grant and some collaboration could help further current efforts,” Neikirk said.
A growing local food movement as well as the significant number of farms and agricultural businesses in the county has contributed to interest in establishing the Farm to School program.
“Kind of like gears working together, support for these movements helps move them all forward,” Neikirk said.
The grant, received by the Stark County Educational Service Center, will benefit about 36,500 students through a plan that will explore local foods procurement, nutrition, wellness, healthy choices, food system education and community food literacy.
“Our folks are good at recognizing a good thing that can improve their programs,” said Stark County ESC Director of Business Operation Tamra Hurst. “We have a good foundation for doing things cooperatively.”
The grant will help expand existing efforts such as school gardens, greenhouses and agriculture in the classroom programs. Schools in the county also purchase local bread and milk, and the county’s coordination of a produce buying group that works with local distributors is a step ahead of many schools, according to Nierkirk.
The advisory team’s initial work is a comprehensive needs and resource assessment. The team is made up of representatives from each district’s community including food service directors, instructional and administrative school personnel, students, parents, farmers, food distributors, retailers, businesses and various community and social service agencies.
Team and Farm Bureau member Rudy Moyer, a farmer at GentleBrook Farms, sees potential.
“Since I’m a grower, I’m all about the fresh food and trying to get it out to as many people as possible,” Moyer said. “Just thinking about the opportunities to be able to provide fresh food to our schools really excites me.”
He hopes to provide additional help by offering his experience.
“I’m just trying to share my knowledge of growing to see how it could fit in with the schools’ menus and needs so they can utilize what farmers are growing in each season,” he said.
The planning process will include menu audits and training program among many factors related to school meals.
“School lunch is a lot more complicated than people think it is,” Hurst said. “A lot of people have ideas on how to improve it but we are working on a shoestring budget and working within federal U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for nutrition. We hope this grant helps us serve a healthy lunch, while balancing all the guidelines we must meet.”
Meals, however, are just one component of Farm to School’s 3Cs – classroom, cafeteria and community. Through opportunities to grow food, students get hands-on learning about nutrition and science.
“The research shows that when children are engaged in growing food, they are more likely to try it and eat it because they have a value-based investment in it,” Neikirk said.
Participants connect to their community by learning from farmers, chefs and other food system leaders. ESC is holding Farm to School programs throughout the county that include a local meal, a taste-testing session and numerous other interactive opportunities.
The first event was held in conjunction with a 5K run and featured Moyer as the farmer. He made a kale and collard greens pesto for passersby to taste.
“Anytime a grower can have people try their product is great,” he said.
Attendees also received information about local farmers and food producers.
Rojean Cole, food service director for Marlington Local Schools, which hosted the event, said it was a big hit and great to see people from the three separate schools come together and learn about their food.
“Farm to School helps our community,” she said.
After the advisory team completes its planning process, it will apply for an implementation grant from the USDA.
“I just planted the seed, now I just have to keep watering it, make sure it gets sunshine and let it grow, and it will be their program,” Neikirk said.
ABOVE: Rudy Moyer showcases his kale and collared greens pesto.
FARM TO SCHOOL GROWTH IN OHIO
“In recent years, on average about four Ohio school districts each year have gotten U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School grants to fund their local foods programs for students, so any increase in funding could mean more schools can provide the benefits of Farm to School to their students,” said Carol Smathers, Ohio State University Extension Farm to School program director.
OTHER OHIO FARM TO SCHOOL PROGRAMS:
The South Euclid-Lyndhurst School District received support to increase the quality and variety of locally procured offerings, establish new procurement methods, upgrade school kitchen equipment and launch a social marketing campaign.
Rural Action received support to work with six rural school districts in southeast Ohio to overcome fresh, local product preparation barriers by integrating food preparation into a culinary arts student lab experience at Hocking College.
The Akron City Schools received a grant to establish a Farm to School program to serve its 22,000 students.Learn more at BluescreekFarmMeats.com or follow them at
Learn more about Farm to School in Ohio at farmtoschool.osu.edu/ and nationally at farmtoschool.org/