By Tierney Gallagher
Clemson, and in particular, the College of Health, Education, and Human Development Department of Public Health Sciences, partnership with several state organizations is helping move the South Carolina Farm to School Program forward, bringing local farm products into school nutrition programs and benefitting schools, farmers and communities statewide.
What is Farm to School?
The South Carolina Farm to School Program originated in 2011 as a two-year funded project from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to help link local farms to schools to provide fresh and minimally processed foods for school cafeterias. Part ofthe National Farm to School Network, the program aims to make this connection by serving healthy meals, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting South Carolina farmers.
To achieve this goal, Farm to School focuses on increasing the number of farmers that are certified to provide locally grown products to schools, educating food service staff and teachers, and providing hands-on learning activities for children to promote healthy eating.
As part of the program, participating schools must serve at least two locally grown foods per month and promote S.C. grown items in the cafeteria. In addition, schools integrate nutrition and agriculture education into classroom activities and maintain a school vegetable garden.
Who is involved?
South Carolina's program is a joint effort between the state's Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Environmental Control and Clemson University's Youth Learning Institute.
This partnership sets South Carolina apart from other states in the national network. Dr. Holly Harring, SC Farm to School Program Director, believes that the multi-agency collaboration aspect of the program is what makes it unique.
"It's unusual to have this many key state-level people driving a program, and this is one where it's truly a level-equal partnership," Dr. Sarah Griffin, associate professor of public health at Clemson. "It's great because you have the resources, expertise and support of all of these organizations working together. There are things we can do that we couldn't do separately because allare involved. Each brings something unique to the process, which makes it exponentially better."
Who does it affect?
The program reaches communities throughout all of South Carolina, from the Upstate to the Lowcountry, affecting schools, farmers and food distributers statewide. According to Harring, in 2011-2012, 52 schools received funding to implement the four components of Farm to School. In 2012-2013, the program expanded to offer grants to an additional 37 schools and 9 child care centers across the state.
Ashley Ridge High Schoolin Summerville, S.C. is one of the program's current sites. ARHS agriculturaleducation teacher Benjamin Gibson helps to implement the program through classroom and lab teaching, supervised agriculture experience and by encouraging student participation in the Future Farmers of America. His class is in charge of every part of the school garden, from seeding to harvest and planning to problem solving.
Melanie Fields, parent of an ARHS student, believes Farm to School has brought a variety of benefits to the school. "The program positively affects ARHS because it provides an additional healthy alternative to the school lunches, as well as introduces the horticulture process to the students," said Fields. "My son is a hands-on learner,and the Farm to School program has ignited his interest in the process of how produce is grown, harvested and brought to market."
Clemson's Department of Pubilc Health Sciences contributions
Clemson's main role in the partnership that constitutes South Carolina's Farm to School Program has been through involvement in education and evaluation processes.
The Department of Public HealthSciences, along with associates at the University of South Carolina, provides evaluation services while the Department of Food Science and Human Nutritionaids in developing educational materials to accompany the program's nutrition education component.
"Clemson contributes to the success ofthe S.C. Farm to School Program in multiple ways," explained Harring. "Regional coordinators through Clemson's Youth Learning Center developed nutrition and agriculture education materials for the program which are available on the Farm to School website for schools across the state to access. In addition, faculty from the College of Health, Education, and Human Development coordinate Farm to School evaluation efforts and activities and provide program guidance and oversight."
Dr. Sarah Griffin, Dr. Joel Williams and Dr. Khoa Truong, professors in the Department of Public Health Sciences,have played a key role in Clemson's involvement as evaluators. Williams and Griffin both feel that it is important for Clemson to take part in Farm to School because of the University's heritage.
"It's important for Clemson to be involved because we are the land grant university in this state,"said Williams. "Anything that involves agriculture and farming, and food andnutrition – I think Clemson should always be a key player. That's just one of our strengths."
According to Griffin, it is this strength that makes the University an important co-collaborator in the program."At Clemson there is an underlying culture of recognizing the importance of agriculture,"said Griffin. "We have a different way of looking at these programs. Clemson's commitment to extension, outreach and public service makes it a good fit with Farm to School's focus."
Although most of the University's work is behind the scenes, its impression on communities is still evident. "Clemson has had an enormous impact here at Ashley Ridge," said Gibson. "Our garden was actually started with a $25,000 grant from Clemson that built the greenhouse and a raised bed growing area, and it brought on everything we have here today. As a graduate of the University, I am proud to know that Clemson is working to keep students healthy and get them local, fresh produce."
Benefits and importance
Aside from providing health benefits, the program also offers other advantages at a community level. By recognizing where food comes from, children make a connection that causes a shift in their attitudes and how they think about food. It also presents economic opportunities to farmers by providing another large outlet to source their produce.
"I don't know how the Farm to School program would work without the local school garden," said Gibson. "Growing our produce and knowing what is ours and what is not has been very exciting for the students and they take pride in the garden. They know that they have a unique opportunity and are learning valuable life lessons while not having to sit inside the classroom all day every day."
Because Farm to School is key to initiatives at both the state and national level, South Carolina's participation has the potential to make an important impact.
Taking part in a comprehensive approach, Clemson's team helps enhance the program through evaluation. By looking at the effects of Farm to School in South Carolina, evaluators identify what is or is not working. Evaluation goes beyond numbers to look at behind the scenes processes, including communication, leadership, cooperation and feedback from schools. Examining these factors provides implications for what may help the program function better.
"South Carolina as a state is poised to be a real leader in promoting this idea of Farm to School,"said Williams. "With this more comprehensive approach that we take, we can be areal model state for the nation, for how to do Farm to School and how to do it effectively."
Progress and future objectives
Williams says education and raising awareness on what the Farm to School program is and clarifying its purpose and goals can address this. In the current 2012-13 year, according to Williams, the program is focused on making progress in getting more produce on school menus, aiming to not only have food purchased,but also actually served.