10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Delaware Correspondent
HURLOCK, Md. — More than 500 students at North Dorchester High School in Hurlock recently enjoyed a lunch of bison burgers and sweet potatoes, drawing attention to healthy food and the local farms that grow it.
Educators, farmers and elected officials enjoyed lunch with the students to kick off Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week last month. But school nutrition is a year-round concern for parents and school officials, even if the students only care about taste.
Robin Phillips, food services manager for the Dorchester County Board of Education, said, "the homegrown school lunch program has forged links to many local farmers. Local farmers donated fresh produce to a number of local schools."
Experts link eating breakfast with successful learning, according to the Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC). Skipping breakfast is relatively common among children in industrialized nations, including the U.S., and has been linked to measurable negative consequences for academic, cognitive, health and mental health functioning.
Over the past three years that Phillips has participated in the program, she's worked at incorporating Dorchester County-produced commodities into school lunch menus. As a result, students have enjoyed crab cakes made from crab packed by 11 local packing houses. Last year, Hurlock schools served chicken from a nearby Allen's grower.
"When I first heard about this, I was not aware there was a bison farm in Dorchester County," Phillips said, noting she was curious to find out what students thought and circulated through the lunchroom for comments.
"I didn't hear one complaint about the bison burgers," she said. "Everyone said they liked it."
It was the first time it was served in a school lunch program on the East Coast.
All the farmers Phillips dealt with to acquire Maryland products were located within a few miles of the school. "Through this program, I've found out about other food products produced locally. It's been a learning experience for me, too," she said.
Last year, the county put out a produce bid for the first time and found a local contractor. But Phillips has discovered that distribution can be a problem because many local farmers are not set up to truck their produce to the schools.
Another challenge to including more locally grown food is that the growing season for local fruits and vegetables does not coincide with the school year. But Phillips said they had lettuce and tomato salads for students in summer school.
She said the connection between proper nutrition and learning is well documented. That connection is directly responsible for a breakfast program in eight schools in the county. Breakfast has been proven to help students perform better academically and participate in the classroom. It also has been linked to less tardiness and fewer visits to the nurse.
Maryland Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance said the state wants to see more local, fresh food in school lunches, not only to improve childhood health, but also to make students knowledgeable about the importance of farms to the economy and environment.
The emphasis on good nutrition and eating local was highlighted by exhibits and demonstrations, as well as a visit to S.B. Farms in Hurlock, where the bison are raised.
As the population concentrates in large towns and cities, many children could grow up without ever seeing a farm animal.
"I told the kinds that they were very lucky to live in a rural area where they can see how their food is grown,” Hance said. “When I go to inner city schools and suburban-area schools, what they know about where food comes from is that when they go to the grocery store, the food is there. For all they know it is manufactured in a factory."
They might know on some level that milk comes from cows, but they have no experience with the process. They don't stop to think that someone grows the produce found in the store, he said.
"One of the good points of the program is that it enables us to let kids know where the food comes from," said Hance. "It's our responsibility to educate them."
He added that in the U.S. the portion of family income spent to feed the family is lower than in most other countries.
"Most Americans don't realize that farmers do such a good job that we feed the USA and many others around in the world."
At the event in Dorchester County, Hance also brought the message that there are great opportunities for careers in agriculture, and it doesn’t have to be on the farm.
"Technology has advanced to the point that we need people with computer skills, scientists with a knowledge of genetics that help us to develop animals and crops that use the earth in an environmentally friendly way," he said.
By 2050, there will be nine billion inhabitants on Earth, Hance said, and "they aren't making any more land."
All North Dorchester High School students had the opportunity to visit the displays and talk with local farmers, sample bison barbecue and "sloppy joes," Maryland apples and pickles, and sweet potatoes grown by a student for a farm project.
Participating farms included S.B. Farms, Simmons Center Market (Cambridge-based produce distributor), Emily's Produce and Chicone Farms (peppers and sweet potatoes).
Dorchester County purchased produce from additional farms located within a few miles of North Dorchester High School for its Homegrown School Lunch Week, including Friendship Farm (apples) and Humphrey Farm (sweet potatoes and tomatoes). Loyal Purpose Farm donated watermelons.
Across the state, schools were creative in how they incorporated local protein into school lunches. Thanks to a national FFA grant, agricultural students in Garrett County raised hogs and saw them made into sausage. Students also raised chickens that produced 60 dozen shelled eggs per week for the school system's meals. Elsewhere in Garrett County, students are growing hydroponic lettuce for the school system.
Washington County Public Schools used local cheese from Palmyra Farms to make macaroni and cheese. High school students also were served Italian chicken sausage made by Hoffman Meats with Perdue chicken.
<$>Maryland's Farm to School program: www.marylandfarmtoschool.org.
School meals programs: www.eatsmartmaryland.org.
Buying local benefits: www.mda.maryland.gov/pdf/buylocalbenefits.pdf.