By Richard Bogren, LSU AgCenter
BATON ROUGE, La. — A school district that produces all the tomatoes and lettuce used in its cafeterias and another school district that has found local companies to supply its cafeterias were highlights of the Louisiana Farm to School Conference on Oct. 24 in Baton Rouge.
The conference attracted school administrators and teachers, food service managers, farmers, food distributors and others involved with Louisiana agriculture, school gardens and healthful school meals, said LSU AgCenter horticulture professor Carl Motsenbocker.
The conference was one component of a national Farm to School program that is funded in Louisiana through an agreement between the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Department of Education.
The farm to school program has three components — school gardens, student education and local sourcing — Motsenbocker said.
Farm to school is the practice of sourcing local food for schools or preschools and providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, such as school gardens, farm field trips and cooking lessons, organizers said.
Richland Parish School Food Service used a grant to jumpstart a program that now provides tomatoes and lettuce to all 11 public schools in the parish, said greenhouse manager Rory Gresham.
The district received a $26,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation that was used to refurbish and equip three greenhouses on the Rayville High School campus.
One greenhouse is used to grow tomatoes and another is used to grow lettuce, both hydroponically. The third greenhouse is smaller and is used to start seeds for the other two, Gresham said.
It took a while for the students to learn to eat salads. “This lettuce has taste,” he said. “and the tomatoes taste like tomatoes are supposed to taste.”
Each week, Gresham produces more than 400 pounds of tomatoes and 350 heads of lettuce.
“We use absolutely every lettuce head and every tomato,” he said. The produce that isn’t used in the schools is sold to local restaurants and grocers.
“The AgCenter Red River Research Station has been a world of help,” Gresham said. “We’re trying something new almost every day.”
In Lafayette Parish, Celeste Hay Finney, a dietician nutrition program coordinator in Lafayette Parish Schools, is working to find ways to purchase local products that are used in 30,000 meals a day.
Finney said she’s been able to supply all the school district sausage and sweet potatoes from local sources. The challenge, she added, is that the suppliers have to be able to supply all the district’s needs.
Other products, such as produce, milk and breads, are bid directly to schools and don’t go through the district warehouse, Finney said. That allows individual schools to work with local growers to supply some of their needs.
Seth Descant, owner of Descant Ranch Food Hub in Franklinton, works with local producers to simplify local sourcing by having a central location for storage and distribution.
Food hubs can be a source for schools to contact local producers, he said.
Descant’s operation is GAP and GHP certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
GAPs, or good agricultural practices, and GHPs, or good handling practices, are important to control pathogens and keep the food supply safe, said AgCenter food safety specialist Achyut Adhikari.
Farmers must understand and identify sources of contamination, then manage risks to minimize problems. “Every segment of the food chain must be safe,” Adhikari said.
The farm to school program is important for developing a food system and keeping small produce growers in business, said Ben Burkett, of Petal, Mississippi.
Burkett farms 300 acres and is director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives.
“Unless we get new, young farmers, we’ll be out of business in 10 years,” he said about the local co-ops he’s working with.
“It’s all about delivering a high-quality product to your children — the next generation,” Burkett said.