Farm-fresh Cortland apples from Bramble Ridge Orchard near Mount Sterling were the crunchy component of a breakfast shared with U.S. Department of Agriculture official Janey Thornton when she visited Cardinal Valley Elementary School last month.
That the fruit was served in a school cafeteria less than 50 miles from where it was grown was part of the reason she was in Lexington.
Thornton, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, was at the school with other USDA officials and leaders from Fayette County Public Schools to review the Farm to School program, which is designed to encourage students to eat local produce and increase purchases from nearby farms.
Getting the food from farm to school, though, requires a complex of people who support the program's goals: food-service managers, farmers, teachers, community leaders and organizers, school administrators and many others.
"You can make rules and regulations," Thornton says, "but it's the people on the ground who make things happen."
Tina Garland, who coordinates the Farm to School program for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said the state's school districts spent only an estimated $10,000 on local produce in 2010, but in the most recent school year, they spent $460,000.
The Lexington Farm to School program received a $45,000 grant from the USDA in late 2012.
Cardinal Valley principal Matthew Spottswood said he welcomes the programs because they can narrow what he calls an "opportunities gap."
"Cardinal Valley serves a 95 percent minority population and a 95 percent free-and-reduced-lunch population," said Spottswood, who came to the school in July. "Of our minority population, over 75 percent are Hispanic. This presents a unique challenge, as the majority of our students come to us in kindergarten not being able to speak the English language."
He said the Farm to School program helps to develop the whole child by emphasizing a healthy lifestyle and with improved nutrition and eating habits that combat childhood obesity.
Lessons in special classes for fourth-graders at Cardinal Valley include tasting produce, meeting farmers and developing an awareness of the nutritional, economic and environmental benefits of consuming local food.
A broad-based Farm to School committee in Fayette County that includes the Cooperative Extension Service, community farm groups and other agencies is developing the program.
Finding farmers with produce to sell, navigating budget constraints and helping vendors figure out how contract bidding works, plus developing menus that comply with school lunch requirements has required some time and dedication.
"My husband says 'Farm to School' has become my middle name," Fayette County schools child nutrition coordinator Marty Flynn said.
In addition to fruit and vegetable on the school menu, there are activities at Cardinal Valley that reinforce the value of fresh produce.
Cafeteria manager Laura May receives baskets of fresh produce a few times a week as part of another USDA grant called the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and interesting choices are offered to students as a snack during the day.
Science lab teacher Adonya Boyle, with the help of Fayette County Cooperative Extension agent Delia Scott and master gardener program volunteers, has established a school garden this year, using eight raised beds filled with vegetables: carrots, broccoli, radishes, peppers and even pumpkins. All are within sight of the windows in six classrooms.
She says she looks for "teachable moments" when weighing, measuring, composting, encountering insects or spotting a hummingbird.
Art classes will soon use the garden for a lesson in plein air painting.
Salad bars with local produce are being offered at Lexington high schools, and a new USDA-supported Junior Chef competition was kicked off this year. Student teams developed an entree suitable for school lunch, containing at least five local produce items.
Thornton, the USDA official, knows Kentucky agriculture well. Her home is on land in Rineyville, near Elizabethtown, that was once her family's farm. Farm-grown fruits and vegetables were part of her childhood, and she previously was a school nutrition director for Hardin County after teaching vocational home economics.
In her travels around the country, Thornton says, she is seeing an upswing and return to interests in home gardening and canning. Yet, she says, as more farmland is developed into suburbs, "one of our big concerns at USDA is about who is going to farm tomorrow, and how they will get land back."
Farm to School and other programs, supported by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, promote local food production as supply sources for school lunch programs. School gardens are encouraged and supported.
She said, "There is now an increase of attention to the whole concept of healthy eating."
■ A wealth of information is available at KYagr.com/consumer/farm-to-school.html. There are tips for farmers and produce growers, food service directors, school administrators, teachers, students, parents, and interested residents.
■ The U.S. Department of Agriculture website is USDA.gov. The Food and Nutrition Service division — which administers the national school lunch and breakfast programs, and initiatives including Farm to School and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program — is at FNS.usda.gov.
Susan Smith-Durisek is a master gardener and writer from Lexington. Email: email@example.com. Blog: Gardening.bloginky.com.