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New partnership helps Kansas producers, school districts and students

Posted: Apr 16, 2021
Categories: KSDE, CNW
Author: Ann Bush

Website features information on Farm to School program

A new partnership between the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) and Shop Kansas Farms is a winning situation for schools, producers and students.

An interactive map on the Shop Kansas Farms website allows school districts to find farmers and ranchers that will sell fresh, locally grown items to them. This helps producers make a profit. School districts have better access to producers, and students enjoy farm-fresh food items.

Shop Kansas Farms began about a year ago after Rick McNary and his wife were eating “a great meal of beef” that they had purchased from a farmer in Anthony, Kansas.

“As we settled in to watch a Hallmark movie, my wife commented that the meat counter was empty at the grocery store that day,” McNary wrote on the Shop Kansas Farms website. “I grabbed my laptop and created the Facebook group, Shop Kansas Farms, for the sole purpose to connect you to the wonderful farm and ranch families of Kansas so you can buy your meat, veggies, dairy and fruit directly from them! Little did I know that I was like a little kid that pulled a plug on a dam and unleashed a flood!”

In just a few hours, more than 400 people had joined the Facebook group. Within 24 hours, there were 5,000 members, and within months, the group had grown to more than 147,000 members – mostly consumers.

McNary and his wife, Christine, formed Shop Kansas Farms LLC and created a website to meet consumer requests to have a searchable directory and map of farms in Kansas. Shop Kansas Farms was awarded the Agricultural Hero Award by the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Friend of Agriculture Award by the Kansas Farm Bureau and Butler County Farm Bureau.

Before long, the group caught the eye of Barb Depew, the Farm to Plate project director for the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE).  She went to the group as a consumer to find locally sourced items.

“It was very helpful to me,” Depew said.

Depew and McNary made contact and began to work on ideas to create a partnership between KSDE and Shop Kansas Farms that would make it easier for schools to connect with producers to get more locally produced food on students’ plates.

“Supporting farmers and ranchers is critical,” McNary said. “Getting healthy food onto the plates of students is important.”

Depew added: “It will help that the kids know where their food comes from.”

The Farm to School program started in 2008 when the Farm Bill amended the Richard B. Russell School Lunch Act to direct the secretary of agriculture to encourage institutions operating child nutrition programs to purchase unprocessed, locally grown and locally raised agricultural products. The initiative is an effort to connect K-12 schools with regional or local farms in order to serve healthy meals using local foods.

Thanks to the partnership, the Shop Kansas Farms’ website, www.shopkansasfarms.com, now has a Farm to School link, which provides website guidance about selling local foods to schools. The link also has a list of schools that are currently providing local foods in meals and snacks and a list of farmers who currently sell to child nutrition programs or are interested in providing this service.

Participating schools and producers – or those who are interested in participating - are encouraged to add their names to the map, Depew said.

Offering locally grown products is important, McNary said.

“It comes with a value – and it comes with a story,” he said.

One of those stories happens to be the first producer who was placed on the interactive map with the Farm to School program. Mark Jirak, owner of Jirak Family Produce near Cummings, has been working with school districts for about 12 years.

The farm provides a variety of items from mid-August through mid-October. Items include watermelon, cucumbers, jalapenos, slicing tomatoes, sweet corn, grape tomatoes, bell peppers, snacking peppers, green beans, cantaloupe, squash and pumpkins.

Jirak also recently put in an acre of high-density trellised apple and peach trees and hopes to offer apples to districts in the near future.

“We continue to upgrade the operation,” Mark Jirak said.

There are occasions when buying local can be more expensive, he said. However, districts spend less money because they have less waste, which offsets a higher price. Students tend to eat more of the locally grown items because they are healthier and taste better, and schools can order exactly what they need, which also reduces waste.

“Schools are committed to providing a high-quality nutritious eating experience,” Jirak said. “They care about the kids. It’s a good program.”

Depew and McNary are excited about the opportunities that the partnership has created.

“The connection is key to rural prosperity,” McNary said. “It’s a win-win for rural progress.”

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