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Kansans open farms to school food service directors to highlight Farm to Plate program

Kansans open farms to school food service directors to highlight Farm to Plate program

Scott Thellman said he was destined to wear a suit and tie and have a career in the grain trade. Instead, he became a first-generation farmer in Douglas County who is helping introduce Kansas students to fresh, healthy foods by selling his produce to schools. 

“I’ve always wanted to farm since I was a little kid,” said Thelman, who owns Juniper Hill Farms near Lawrence. 

Today, Thellman’s farm is a diversified agricultural operation producing organic and conventional vegetables, row crops and hay. He is a graduate of Iowa State University. Thellman returned to Kansas in 2014 and began working hard to strengthen the region’s food systems to better serve his local community and the state. In March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thellman partnered with Michael Beard, a chef and owner of Meat LLC, to launch Sunflower Provisions, an online local grocery marketplace for local produce, proteins and provisions. 

About 12 food service directors from Northeast Kansas toured Juniper Hill Farms as part of the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) Child Nutrition and Wellness (CNW) Regional Farm Tours. There are a total of three tours to help introduce tour participants to the Kansas Farm to Plate program. 

Farm to Plate incorporates the use of fresh and nutritious foods from local sources into Child Nutrition Programs (CNPs), including the Child and Adult Food Care Program, National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service Program and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. 

Local foods can be from any food group – meats, eggs, grains, fruits, vegetables or dairy. This can include milk, cheese, yogurt, flour, tortillas, pizza crust, condiments, beans, legumes and other agricultural products, according to the KSDE CNW team. Each CNP sets its own definition for what counts as locally grown or raised. 

The tours kicked off Friday, Sept. 29, with the Northeast Kansas Farm Tour. Other tour stops that day included Lawrence Unified School District 497’s gardens and JET Produce and Meats. 

Farm to Plate benefits producers and Kansas students. The food is healthy and nutritious and often has more flavor, said Jacob Thomas, who owns JET Produce and Meats with his wife, Jennifer.  

“I can remember growing up in the Lansing school district,” Jacob Thomas said. “The only thing fresh we ever had was watermelon and bananas. There is a lot more flavor in local food. When you have local items, they have flavor, they taste good, and you want to eat more.” 

The farm, located just outside of Leavenworth, was founded in 2012, although the house where the Thomas family lives is the original home purchased by Jacob’s grandparents in the 1950s. The Thomas family specializes in growing a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. In 2014, JET Produce expanded into the meat market by offering beef, chicken, pork and lamb. 

This season, the farm is selling Romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, butternut squash and spaghetti squash to Kansas and Missouri schools via the Kansas City Food Hub, a farmer-owned and farmer-run cooperative that makes it possible to move freshly harvested local foods to families, schools and businesses. 

The organization currently works with 25 small- and medium-sized farms to offer local items to about seven to eight school districts in Kansas and Missouri, within a 125-mile radius of the Kansas City area. 

The top products purchased by schools include apples, cherry and grape tomatoes, cut greens and lunch box peppers, according to Annalise Lallana, director of operations, and Marti Bodenhamer, sales and marketing manager. 

The two gave farm tour participants a presentation during a luncheon at Lawrence High School. On the lunch menu? Locally grown items, of course. Soft tacos featuring beef from 2 Trails Ranch in Lecompton; cucumbers and snacking peppers from Jirak Family Produce in Cummings; green peppers from Juniper Hill Farms; jalapenos and radishes from Little Bluestem Farm in Lawrence; apples from South Baldwin Farms in Baldwin; and milk from Hiland Dairy. 

Alli Bell and Stephanie Willingham, from the United States Department of Agriculture, joined the lunch program to introduce themselves and tell tour participants they are available to help answer questions about federal grants available through the USDA Farm to School Grant Program. 

Programs like Kansas Farm to Plate are key to educating students about agriculture and the importance of locally sourced food, Thomas said. 

“I think there is a large disconnect between where the food comes from and how it ends up on a plate,” he said. 

JET Produce and Meats and Juniper Hill Farms enjoy working with students. During the school year, students will tour Juniper Hill Farms, and during the summer months, JET Produce and Meats hires several high school students to work on the farm. 

“It’s very cool,” Thellman said about the opportunity to provide local produce to schools and about students touring Juniper Hill Farms. “I love it when we get kids on the farm.” 

Seeing what happens on a farm exposes students to the possibility of a career in the ag industry, he said. 

“We desperately need more people entering the ag industry,” Thellman said. “We need larger-scale growers to feed students in schools. Sure, my ag business degree helped me as a first-generation farmer. But we also need truck drivers, pack house managers and other skilled laborers.” 

Tour participants also had a chance to tour gardens at West Middle School and Southwest Middle School in Lawrence. 

Lawrence USD 497 engages in Farm to School across all three tenants – procurement, school gardens and garden education. Funding for the program comes from a $50,000 allocation from the district’s general fund and a $12,000 allocation from food services. There are school gardens and paid part-time coordinators at every school garden site, including the College and Career Center, Community Connections facility and the Juvenile Detention Center. 

The West Middle School Growing Food Growing Health garden teaches students how to grow food while taking care of the earth, to work as members of a team and to facilitate community health and engagement among those who are food insecure. All of the produce from the garden is donated at a weekly free farmer’s market, said Nancy O’Connor, executive director of Growing Food Growing Health (GFGH), which manages the West Middle School Garden. 

Lawrence USD 497 has a memorandum of understanding with GFGH that provides the organization with a portion of the Farm to School district general fund allocation. Students who work on the project are paid by GFGH. 

Southwest Middle School has a market garden that sells produce at a farmer’s market, to grocery stores, local restaurants and directly into district food services. The 2022-2023 growing season brought in about $14,000 in sales revenue. Student workers are paid. The site does intensive vegetable growing in a few areas on the school grounds. In addition to the five vegetable production areas, the school also houses a pear and apple orchard. 

Lawrence USD 497 has 71 nutrition and wellness staff members who work at 19 locations across the district. The district operates the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Afterschool Snack Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Summer Food Service Program and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. About 1,300 breakfasts and 5,000 lunches are served per day. 

The district awarded local produce contracts to seven local farms and ranches through a competitive RFP process and has plans to purchase more than 13,000 pounds of local produce and 1,000 pounds of ground beef for the 2023-2024 school year. 

The KSDE regional farm tours are free, and two more are scheduled. The Southcentral Kansas tour will be 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6. The tour will include Teck Farms (Hutchinson), Basinger’s Beef (Pretty Prairie), Pretty Prairie USD 311’s farm and Eck Agriculture (Kingman). A local lunch will be provided by Pretty Prairie USD 311 with a presentation from the Stafford County Flour Mill. 

The third and final tour will be in Northwest Kansas and begin in Hoxie. It will be held from 8 a.m.-3:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13. The tour will include a wheat/sorghum producer in Garfield, 4B Farms in Grinnell and M Arrow Ranch in Colby. A local lunch will be provided by Colby USD 315. 

Laura Fails, food service director at Wamego USD 320 and a participant in the Northeast Kansas Farm Tour, said her district works with two local farms within a 15-mile radius. The district offers local peaches, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and bell peppers. It also offers Kansas milk, Kansas beef, and items made with Kansas flour year-round. 

Wamego USD 320 feeds about 500 to 600 students at breakfast and about 1,100 at lunch. 

Challenges that may keep school food service workers from participating in the Farm to Plate program include distance to a ranch or farm, lack of transportation for the produce and lack of storage space. 

“That is a big challenge for schools,” she said. “We’re lucky that we’re close and have a food truck to go pick up items.” 

Offering locally grown produce and beef is important to Fails. 

“I think it’s become one of the pillars of our program,” she said. “I personally feel like there is so much value in purchasing and eating locally. I think if we support our own communities in that way, it is a benefit for our program, our students and our communities.” 

Posted: Oct 5, 2023,
Comments: 0,
Author: Ann Bush
Tags: CNW

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