Filling Students’ Backpacks Helps Farmer Educate and Feed

5/3/2014 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

Lisa Freier farms and educates. Founding Bushels Fill Backpacks earlier this year helped Freier combine both pursuits for a good cause.

Bushels provides needy schoolchildren with donations from area farms. During long weekends and school holidays, when children do not receive breakfast and lunch at school, some needy children go without nutritious meals. That’s where Bushels helps fill in the gap.

The district already operated a food backpack program; however, Bushels uses food from farms to augment the backpack program. Donations include shelf-stable items such as locally grown and produced pancake mix.

Freier and her husband, Don, have operated Zwick Farm along with their sons, Ben, Louis II, and Colby since 1990. The family follows in the footsteps of Don’s father, Louis, who bought the 600-acre property in 1947. The Freiers grow soybeans, corn, wheat and hay as a “total family operation between us and our sons,” Lisa Freier said.

The idea to launch Bushels stemmed from Lisa Freier’s pursuit of an associate’s degree in human services at Finger Lakes Community College. She needed human services field experience to complete her degree, but working full time as a teacher’s aide at Romulus Central School and helping on the farm made it seem impossible to cram in the degree requirement.

“I began to look and see where there might be a need within the school system,” she said. “The number of families our current backpack program at school supplied was growing and I thought maybe this was an area I could help with.”

The food program currently helps 22 area families.

As Freier solicited area farms to donate, she pledged to share her knowledge of ag to the classroom through hands-on projects such as making a healthful snack mix from raisins, seeds and roasted soybeans, and discussing how farms bring these products to consumers.

“Many times all you hear about are the negatives of farming,” she said. “The smell, the cow’s producing too much gas, pesticide runoff, etcetera.”

The top misconception, she said, “is how their food comes from the grocery store. I wanted the students to know where their food comes and what other products are made from it. I thought as farmwife and mother, it was my duty to educate others on what benefits agriculture supplies to their daily lives and where their food originates.”

Nearly one-third of the 65 ag producers or companies Freier has approached offered a monetary donation or end product. Instead of appealing to grocery stores, Freier wanted to stick with farms and local processors to maintain the strong tie between local producers and the children she educates.

Donors include Day Brothers Dairy & Maple Farm in Phelps (maple syrup), Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva (apples), New Hope Mills in Auburn (buckwheat pancake mix), Birkett Mills in Penn Yan (Cream of Buckwheat hot cereal), Barilla in Avon (pasta) and Seneca Foods Corp. in Geneva (vegetables and apple chips).

“They embraced my idea and decide to donate,” she said. “The ag producers donated with a monetary gift.”

She chose producers that operate within a certain radius of the Romulus Central School district limits to “keep it a community project,” she said.

In addition to educating the children about agriculture, Freier said the farms also receive positive promotion among the young consumers.

“The fourth grade made and ate buckwheat pancakes and real, farm-fresh maple syrup, right in the classroom,” she said.

After school, Freier conducts cooking classes with Backpack participants, where she uses some of the products to produce recipes students can take home with them.

The kindergarten and first graders thought the roasted soybeans in their snack mix were nuts.

“They were amazed how much they liked them,” she said.

The second graders read “Who Grew My Soup?” and talked about label reading.

“The students all left with vegetable seed packages to start their own gardens,” she said. “Fifth graders found out the fact that corn is actually a grass. We did math problems based on the new core curriculum and made biodegradable plastic from corn products.”

She said that the children seem to enjoy the hands-on lessons that break up the day. But her main goal “is to make sure that those backpacks get filled with bushels of food,” she said. “I want students to know where their food comes from and look beyond the pretty packaging and negativities of the agricultural industry.

“I also look forward to more producers participating once the word gets out,” she added. “There is a big wide world out there and for kids to believe food comes from the supermarket is unacceptable.”

Her son, Ben, has pledged soybeans. In addition to helping on his parent’s farm, Ben Freier farms a self-named, 125-acre corn and soybean operation in Fayette, near his parent’s property.

“I try to help out any ag programs I can,” Ben Freier said. “Everyone’s so far removed from the farm. Half the people don’t know where their food comes from. They just think tractors get in their way. And it doesn’t hurt that my mom started it.”

Bruce Maybury, owner of Maybury Farms in Waterloo, pledged a monetary contribution from his 6,000-acre operation that includes corn, soybeans, wheat and hay.

“It helps people out,” he said, nearly baffled as to why anyone would ask the reason he wanted to contribute. “Farmers are called to feed the world.”

Jeff Trout, partner at Poormon Farms in Seneca Falls, pledged buckwheat flour to the program.

“I graduated from Romulus,” Trout said. “It was a good opportunity to make a contribution back to the institution that provided me with so much success later in life.”

He also thinks that it’s good to educate the public about farming. Though Romulus is in a largely rural county, “even here, it’s a mostly nonfarming public. We can educate them about all we as farmers contribute to the community.”

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