KDA Farm to School preparing to receive $3.2 million grant from USDA
By Chris Aldridge
Kentucky Ag News
The largest grant the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s (KDA) Farm to School Program has ever received was $150,000.
But, the program is preparing to receive more than 21 times that amount, $3.2 million, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Local Food for Schools (LFS) Grant.
“Oh gosh! It’ll make a huge difference,” said Tina Garland, a KDA branch manager who has worked with the Farm to School Program from its genesis 12 years ago.
“It’s not a competitive grant, so we’ll get it as long as we show we have a plan, have good controls in place, and are pursuing the same goals that they have,” said Ian Hester, director of the KDA’s Food Distribution Division. “This is the last batch of the COVID and Build Back Better funding. We expect to hear this fall that we’ve gotten the grant and have funds out to schools in January.”
Hester is proud most of the $3.2 million will be used to buy local produce, dairy products, and meat directly from Kentucky farmers, which will impact rural towns across the commonwealth.
“Studies say that money spent locally changes hands seven times before it leaves your community,” Garland said. “That’s huge!”
Schools participating in the Farm to School Program across the state will also benefit.
“The money they save on food purchases can be used for equipment upgrades,” Hester said. “We’re helping them make connections with producers of milk, cheese and yogurt, and proteins, primarily beef.”
Hester gave an example of a local beef producer who has only one cow to sell.
“It’s not economically feasible to send it out to a big feed lot in Colorado,” he said. “But we can process it locally and send good, high-quality meat out to local schools.”
The Farm to School Program works by connecting the food service directors at public schools to Kentucky food producers.
“A lot of it is just helping farmers and schools make relationships,” Hester said.
The University of Kentucky hosts a free statewide website to connect schools with producers called the Kentucky Farm to School Hub at www.kyfarmtoschool.com.
“We intend to grow that website with the LFS Grant,” Garland said. “The grant is going to foster those relationships between food service directors and local producers.
“After the funding has all been used and released, those relationships will continue. We’re building the foundation to continue that relationship in future years.”
Garland said there seems to be “a language barrier” between farmers and schools.
“Our biggest challenge is getting the food service directors and the farmer to communicate,” she said. “But if we can eliminate that language barrier, the sky’s the limit.
“We have the price, and we have the quantity. The biggest barrier for food service directors is procurement, and the biggest for farmers is delivery. If we can overcome those two barriers, it will open up a whole new avenue for Farm to School in Kentucky.”
If the school and farmer are near one another, delivery is not a problem.
“The problem is when a grower in Paducah wants to sell to a school in Pikeville,” Garland said, naming two Kentucky towns 400 miles apart. “The delivery of that product is just not feasible for the producer.”
Garland said when she gets an e-mail from a farmer saying they have extra produce for sale, the first question she asks is, “Where are you willing to deliver?” She also helps food service directors write their specifications.
“Right now, all a food service director has to do is look at a catalog on a computer, click on what they want, and it’s done,” Garland said. “But once they order from a farmer for the first time, they’ll do it again.”
In addition to the money staying in Kentucky, food service directors will discover several advantages to buying fresh Kentucky Proud produce.
“Local produce has a longer shelf life,” Hester said. “You get a 10 percent loss (of freshness) coming out of California and Brazil.” “Farmers grow varieties for taste, not for shelf life,” Garland added, noting that emphasis results in better-tasting fruits or vegetables, which is key to getting kids to eat them.
Fruits and vegetables begin to lose their nutrients within 24 hours of being picked, so fresher produce is more nutritious. In addition, locally grown food is picked at peak ripeness, when it's most dense with nutrients.
“Kids that eat local food have better nutrition, which leads to better (educational) outcomes,” Hester noted.
There’s also the current supply chain issue affecting grocery stores, creating bare shelves where some products are unable to be restocked.
“Our current supply chain is driving everybody crazy, and food service directors can’t get everything they need by ordering through prime vendors,” Garland said. “But the schools that ordered from farmers have not been affected. They know they’re going to get those watermelons. The supply chain crisis has not affected them.”
For more information about the KDA’s Farm to School Program, go to www.kyagr.com/consumer/farm-to-school.html.