Farm to school: Fresh from the school garden

School gardens are one of the three key elements of farm to school. Learn more about how to use fresh garden produce in the school cafeteria.

School gardens are one of the three key elements of farm to school. Photo credit: Kathryn Colasanti, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems.

School gardens are one of the three key elements of farm to school. Photo credit: Kathryn Colasanti, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems.

Many advocates for farm to school are familiar with school garden programs and the multiple benefits they offer students, their families, teachers and school staff. According to the National Farm to School Network, school gardens are one of the three core components of farm to school. The other two are local sourcing and nutrition education. School gardens are often used as educational tools to learn about the food system, nutrition and to reinforce educational standards in other subjects.

A natural extension of school garden programming is to use the produce in the cafeteria. Programs that do this are called garden to cafeteria programs. Several garden to cafeteria practitioners claim that their students eat more produce when it is sourced from the garden.

These programs come in all different models and sizes. Some schools, like West Michigan Academy of Environmental Sciences in Grand Rapids, have a small garden and use a few fruits or vegetables on their salad bar. Other programs, like the one run by Detroit Public Schools, hope to make a district-wide impact by operating a small farm and numerous school gardens. This allows the district to source a significant amount of their produce from what they grow.

Currently, there are no regulations that restrict sourcing produce from a school garden. On the national level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has given approval for school food service to source produce from school gardens. They also have approved the use of the school food service budget to purchase garden supplies, when those purchases are a reasonable expense. In a local context, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) has also given approval for the use of school garden produce in cafeterias. Both the USDA’s and MDARD’s approval are contingent upon using safe food practices while growing the school garden produce.

If you are interested in starting or supporting a garden to cafeteria program at your school, the newly released Garden to Cafeteria: A Step-by-Step Guide from the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems is a valuable resource. You can also contact your local Community Food Systems educator for more information.

Michigan State University Extension supports farm to school efforts around the state, to encourage healthy students and abundant opportunities for Michigan producers.

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