LINCOLN– Nebraska Sen. Tom Brandt of Beatrice introduced a bill in the Nebraska Legislature on Jan. 14 that would establish farm-to-school programs statewide as part of the Nebraska Department of Education.
The Nebraska Farm-to-School Program Act would connect local farms to schools to provide the children with fresh and minimally processed foods. The bill would also present a new opportunity for local farmers to sell their products.
“It opens up another sales point at the largest restaurant in the state of Nebraska, our school cafeterias,” Brandt said.
Most of the schools, especially in rural areas, are fully supported by local property tax, Brandt said. A portion of the money is used to buy food from other states.
The farm-to-school programs would support local farms by having the money stay within the local economy. It’s an economic development initiative for rural Nebraska, Brandt said.
He said another benefit of the program might be that farmers can diversify what they produce. Schools would also have access to locally grown high-quality food to improve children’s nutrition.
Nebraska is a leader in meats, dry beans, corn and soybeans. However, farmers in Nebraska also grow a variety of fruits, vegetables and other produce, Brandt said.
A farm-to-school program coordinator would establish a database of all local farmers involved in the program and their products available to schools. The coordinator would also be responsible for informing all 244 public school districts and the state’s private schools about the opportunity to buy healthy food from local farmers.
Alex McKiernan, owner of Robinette Farm in Martell, has been involved with planning the Farm-to-School Program Act since the early stages of its development. He said a program coordinator would help foster relationships between farmers and schools.
“We’ve tried to reach out to schools and get more involvement from schools with small local farms, but it is a challenge to make that relationship work,” McKiernan said.
Brandt said that the cost of establishing the position would be many times paid back.
Farm-to-school programs already exist in Nebraska. The Nebraska Farm Bureau has a program called Ag in the Classroom that connects urban elementary students with penpals who are adults in agriculture. Another example is the Greenhouse-to-Cafeteria Program through the Center for Rural Affairs. Many schools also have Future Farmers of America chapters. However, many schools do not have any form of agricultural education.
Half of the state’s goods produced come from agriculture, yet there is very little education in schools associated with agriculture, McKiernan said.
The bill’s second component is intended to promote agricultural education in primary, secondary and private schools.
The program would include learning opportunities such as farm visits, cooking demonstrations, school gardening and composting programs, and activities that integrate nutrition and agricultural education into the school curriculum.
“We need to create a passion in our young people for agriculture. We desperately need workers out here. There are so many opportunities in agriculture, in the state of Nebraska,” Brandt said.