AUGUST 29, 2008

HOME

USAO Joins in Statewide Farm to School Program

Photo of USAO president and students eating watermelon
Enjoying a fresh watermelon from Rush Springs are (from left) USAO President John Feaver, student Tiffany Hale of Tecumseh, food services Manager Jim Lester and Bergundy Nelson, executive assistant to the president. USAO is among the first colleges to join Oklahoma’s Farm To School Program, which is designed to bring fresh, local produce and other Oklahoma food products to campus dining services.

Students will find fresher, healthier and better tasting produce from area farms when they return to the college cafeteria this fall at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. This month, USAO became a leader in the statewide Farm To School Program – an idea conceived by Rep. Susan Winchester of Chickasha and former Sen. Daisy Lawler of Comanche in legislation they authored.

“This step is a win for everybody,” said USAO President John Feaver. “Students get the freshest food, area farmers get more local customers, and taxpayers get the most intelligent and efficient advance in the food chain. The program will not only produce healthier students, but as well provide them new community service opportunities to help facilitate more sustainable economic networks benefiting the region and the state. We applaud Susan and Daisy for putting the ball into play. We’re delighted to be a leader in the process.”

Farm To School is a partnership between farmers and schools that brings to the cafeteria a wide range of Oklahoma-grown products – peaches and melons grown in Stratford, watermelons from Hinton, wheat grown in western Oklahoma and milled in Hobart, squash and tomatoes from Yarnaby and much more.

"We’re thrilled,” said Jim Lester, general manager of Sodexho Campus Services at USAO. “Our students will notice the difference. This stuff is greener, fresher, healthier, and not transported from the coasts or stored for weeks.”

To a trained chef like Lester, it’s all about taste.

"Once you pick ears of corn, the sugar starts turning to starch and the great taste disappears,” Lester said. “We’re proud to be one of the first colleges in Oklahoma to join this innovative state program and bring the freshest food possible to students and our thousands of campus visitors. Tomatoes grown a thousand miles from here are picked green, artificially ripened under refrigeration or gas, and stay flavorless. But ‘local’ tomatoes are vine-ripened. They don’t need weeks of storage when they’re grown 50 miles from campus. Yeah, you could say we’re pretty excited about this project.”

For USAO students, faculty and campus guests, the first signs of change will hit the cafeteria line next month, Lester said. “In the middle of August, we will begin receiving seedless watermelons and cantaloupe and add sweet corn, cucumbers, canary melons, yellow and zucchini squash in September. October will bring butternut squash and fall tomatoes and maybe more.”

The buzz started at USAO when Bergundy Nelson, executive assistant to the president, became an active gardener and contributor to the local farmers market. Like other gardeners, she shares fresh vegetables with friends and co-workers, and wondered, “Why can’t we do this on a larger scale with lots of area growers and schools?” Then she learned about Farm to School.

To Nelson, making USAO a leader in fresh food on campus is right for a dozen reasons, including environmental, health, taste, economic advantage for small farmers, public image for the college, political leadership, energy savings – and even community pride. “This is simply logical,” said Nelson, whose interest in Farm To School was kind of … well, organic.

“I got interested in this and found out about Farm To School through attending conferences put on by the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture,” she explained. “Of course I attended because of my interest in gardening, herbs, farmers market production, etc. I am a very strong advocate of buying local produce, meats, etc., and this program just makes sense for the Oklahoma economy. In fact, one source estimates Oklahoma farmers could sell $6 million in produce to schools alone. This also makes sense for consumers because of food safety and security issues, more nutritious and fresh produce and healthier people.

The more Oklahomans know about this program, the more they will support it,” Nelson said.

As a longtime advocate for community advancement, USAO President John Feaver applauds the move as “good for all Oklahomans.” He wonders whether healthier children in the public schools and healthier adults in the colleges perform better academically.

Nelson agrees.

Studies prove that diet, performance and behavior are interrelated,” Nelson said. “I'd like to know that my tax dollars being spent on school lunch programs are providing healthy options for students and going to support local farmers and keeping tax dollars in the Oklahoma cycle.”

Farm To School is an outreach of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Listed among its many partners are 16 councils, agencies and foundations. The Oklahoma Farm To School Program was created in by House Bill 2655 and signed by Gov. Brad Henry in June 2006. A leading partner in the process is the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Poteau.

USAO joins the University of Oklahoma as a leader in higher education in the program. Nearly 50 school districts will participate in the program this fall.