This spring, I attended the Gallatin Valley Farm Fair where local farmers, FFA students, the Gallatin Conservation District and local businesses come together annually to share their expertise and excitement about agriculture and conservation with fourth-graders across the county.
Teachers told me their students ask questions for weeks after their visit to the Farm Fair. Even though Montana students are surrounded by open space and farmland, many of them have not had the opportunity to see a working farm or see firsthand where their food comes from. Watching kids' eyes light up when they get the chance to pet a horse or learn how to milk a cow is a great reminder of how important it is to offer outdoor learning opportunities for our students and take advantage of our community members’ knowledge to make learning interactive and relevant for students.
October is National Farm-to-School Month. Our state has a deep and rich connection to agriculture. Sixty years ago, about 70 percent of the food Montanans put on their tables was produced right here in the state. Today, that number has dropped to approximately 10 percent. In that same time span, we've seen an increase in processed foods, childhood obesity and childhood hunger. We need to get more Montana-produced food into our schools, where it will provide our children with the nutritious meals they need to stay healthy.
Farm-to-School programs are a win-win situation for all involved. In Montana, 80,000 students are served by the school lunch program every day. Our schools can provide a substantial and consistent market for local farmers and ranchers, which in turn, supports our rural communities. Community-based agriculture has the potential for creating jobs, developing small business entrepreneurships and keeping precious dollars in the community.
Not only is there an economic benefit to our communities by supporting Farm-to-School programs, there is also a health benefit for children. Farm-to-School programs educate students about the interconnection of food, nutrition and agriculture, and encourage them to make healthier food choices.
Farm-to-School programs include educational opportunities such as planting school gardens, cooking demonstrations, creating "made in Montana" menu items and farm tours. Farm-to-School programs are popping up in Montana's urban and rural schools. For example, more than 40 of our schools have gardens where students prepare the soil, plant the seeds, care for the plants and watch them grow. Those students now have ownership of the food they helped grow and harvest.
Children in Boulder participate in after-school and summer programs using donated garden space to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for local families, other students and for after-school cooking classes. Some of the produce is sold at Boulder Farmer's Market and the local grocery store.
Montana Farm-to-School efforts also include FoodCorps, the nation's first statewide team of AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers trained to start and expand Farm-to-School programs. In 2006, FoodCorps started working in six schools and has now expanded to a dozen communities.
All across our state, school nutrition programs, non-profit organizations, school administrators, teachers, parents, farmers, ranchers, policy makers and state agencies are coming together to explore the many strategies for connecting children to their food sources and agriculture, Montana's largest industry.
Farm-to-School programs have something for everyone because they improve learning, nutrition and local economies. I hope you will join me in supporting your school's Farm-to School efforts.
(Denise Juneau is Montana superintendent of public instruction.)