Frank B. Maher Jr., the director of school food services for the 6,400-student Westfield, Mass., school district, knows exactly where his shiny apples, crisp pears, and vine-ripened tomatoes are coming from.
About 25 percent of the produce used in the district’s school lunch program comes from local growers. There’s a benefit to keeping money in the community, but there’s another obvious plus, Mr. Maher says: The locally grown produce just tastes better.
“Oh, yeah,” Mr. Maher said. “It’s really good. The kids took to it right away.”
The district is one of 70 participants in the Massachusetts Farm to School Project. Those districts feed about 200,000 students in the state.
Nationwide, 35 states and 1,000 districts take part in some form of purchasing agreement with local growers, said Marion Kalb, a co-director of the National Farm to School Program, which is managed jointly by the Community Food Security Program, in Santa Fe, N.M., and the Center for Food and Justice, at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The Massachusetts program has several partners, including the state department of agriculture; the state farm bureau; Project Bread, a state anti-hunger organization; and MassDevelopment, which promotes economic development.
Kelly Erwin, the state’s farm-to-school consultant, works on bringing growers and schools together.
The first part of connecting the groups is understanding the needs of farmers and school districts, Ms. Erwin said. Districts are used to dealing with large companies that buy food from all over the country. Local growers have to develop the infrastructure to serve the needs of a large purchaser.
Mr. Maher decided to start with a small purchase over the summer of 2003, and the Westfield district’s participation has grown from there. The employees he manages “saw an immediate improvement in the product they have to work with,” he said.
Donna M. Lombardi, the school nutrition director for the 25,000-student Worcester district, was able to get local produce through the distributor she was already using. About 20 percent to 30 percent of the food she serves to students is locally grown. “The color and taste was just that much better than something grown 500 miles away,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week