Farm to School project teams up with west central Missouri schools
The pickiest eater in the Leesville preschool class finishes a second slice of cucumber.
“He ate it. No, he really ate it!” one teacher exclaimed to another.
The little guy who surprised his teachers was one of 330 students in four rural west central Missouri school districts who participated during the 2022-2023 school year in 11 farm-to-school taste tests. Schools organized the taste tests with assistance from the nine-county Farm to School project at West Central Missouri Community Action Agency (Bates, Benton, Cass, Cedar, Henry, Hickory, Morgan, St. Clair, and Vernon counties).
West Central works in the region to help schools explore farm to school purchasing and educational activities that support farm to school’s twin goals: Healthy children and strong local farm economies.
Taste tests are both a beginning and ongoing strategy for building fresh and local foods into students’ diets. In fact, taste tests and cooking demonstrations top the list of activities that schools involved in farm to school undertake.
In the most recent national farm-to-school census (2019), nearly 70,000 schools featured local food on menus or in student education; of those, 34 percent held taste tests and cooking demonstrations. In total, schools involved in farm to school nationally served 43 million students and spent $1.3 billion, or about 20 cents for every school meal dollar, on food from local and regional producers.
Try it. You’ll like it.
Taste tests are a key component because they offer students an opportunity to try new foods. They also offer schools the opportunity to see what national farm-to-school research has shown: Students begin to make healthy food choices once they experience farm-fresh options and get to know the local farm and farmer behind the food.
“Each taste test includes an age-appropriate educational activity, as well as information about the farm that the local foods came from and the farmer who grew them,” said West Central’s Farm to School Specialist Jaclyn Carroll.
For the 2022-2023 taste tests, students from preschool through eighth grade tasted snack-size portions of local apples, pears, cucumber, and tomatoes. The opportunity to include preschool students was an unexpected and welcome outcome for West Central’s farm to school project; three of the four participating districts have preschool students in addition to the project’s original elementary and middle school focus.
The taste tests encouraged younger students to explore the foods with all five of their senses. Older students studied the biology of apples, pears, cucumber, and tomatoes. Photos and videos of local farmers who produced the taste test snacks helped students connect the food to their own communities and land.
Each taste test wrapped up with students voting on how well they liked the food along with appreciation from organizers to all participating, including those who put a star in the “do not prefer” column of the taste test ballot.
Most students put their stars in the “Love it” column.
Surprise and delight
“I was excited to get a snack, but I didn’t know it would be this delicious,” said a second-grade student from the Hume School District after a taste test of local apples. Later that day, a fourth-grade student said that his apple was “way better than in the store.”
Many students asked for more servings of the food tested and were excited to eat it with the school meal in the future. Two participating schools ordered extra cucumbers and apples to include in a school meal after the testing. Two more schools are planning another taste test of different items next year.
At least three rural west central Missouri schools are making local food a regular school meal feature.
Ashley Haidusek is Food Service Director for Warsaw School District and the driving force behind the district’s farm to school program. She reports increased consumption of food items that her students know are locally produced.
“Having the students involved with what they are eating at school is a big thing,” she said. “Kids are more than likely going to eat better if they know how and what it takes to farm, and that they have a community connection to the products that they are being served.”
Farmers, in turn, are proud when students get to taste their foods.
Noah Long, owner of Noah’s Nursery and Garden, supplies the Warsaw School District. He said: “I’m glad that the students will get a chance to experience fresh produce in school … Local fresh foods are tastier and more nutritious than foods that have been shipped long distances and stored for weeks on shelves or in fridges.”
They really do eat those farm-fresh foods. That is the experience of west central Missouri’s 2022-2023 taste tests, as well as farm to school programs nationally.
For more information, contact Farm Business Counselor Jaclyn Carroll at New Growth: 660-476-2185, ext 3142 or <jcarroll AT newgrowthmo.org>.