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Posted: Friday, July 22, 2011 4:00 pm

Ashley Schimke, the Arizona Department of Education's first farm to school specialist, is working to increase the amount of fresh, locally grown produce offered in Arizona schools.

Schimke's position was created in January to meet the guidelines in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm to School initiative and in response to a rise in consumer demand for local food.

"The goal is to support Arizona agriculture and get local farms to support local schools," said Schimke, who adds that "the local movement has been a growing thing for a long time and Arizona is just now jumping on board."

Schimke defines local as anything that is grown in the state of Arizona. Farms will have to be certified to sell to schools.

Ideally, the program will lead to a mutually beneficial relationship where money spent on school breakfast and lunch programs will go to support Arizona agriculture and economy. In turn, school children will have better access to wholesome food and nutrition education.

Although Schimke would like to see the program everywhere, and is encouraging schools to take part, participation will not be mandatory. School administrators will make that decision, and if they are interested in adding local options to their menus Schimke will help them connect with farmers.

While the program is still in the beginning stages, the end result could look a bit like the concept used in the Litchfield Elementary School District, which Schimke visited after being hired.

The Litchfield district began buying local 10 years ago and has since evolved into a sort of model program.

In all of their schools kindergarten through eighth grade they use only whole-grain breads and always provide fresh fruit and salad bars with the 8,000 meals served every day.

"We bring the kindergartners in the first week of school and show them how to use the salad bar - not to use your fingers, but use the tongs instead," said David Schwake, 61, who has been chief food service director for 17 years.

"We have a philosophy that the farms in our district are property taxpayers and school taxpayers. If we can spend our money here it just helps everyone," said Schwake, who estimates that they get about 10 percent of their produce locally.

In order to be eligible to sell food in schools, farms must meet guidelines and be approved by the school district in which they will be sold.

The Farm to School initiative will also provide instruction and educational material for schools to create their own gardens, such as the ones at Kyrene's Cerritos and Niños elementary schools. This allows kids to learn the art and science of planting and growing food.

Before, said Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary School Principal Darcy DiCosmo "we would just be talking to kids but, instead, we are applying it and understanding it."

DiCosmo feels this hands-on learning allows for many teachable moments. Through the garden they are able to learn not only about the biology of plants, but also of humans.

Understanding that food does not just show up in the grocery store but, instead, gets there through a long process gives students a new respect for their vegetables.

"They love them when they're pulled out of the garden; for some reason they taste different," said DiCosmo about the students' enthusiasm for partaking in the fruits of their labors, which is in sharp contrast to their dislike of the same food in the cafeteria.

Linda Mercier, who works in the kitchen at Desert Garden Montessori, feels this disconnect is all the more reason to have school gardens so that kids can relate to their food.

Taking field trips to local farms and planting seasonally so that students' gardens will be in sync with Arizona farmers can help bridge this gap and improve eating habits.

The Montessori school has a garden of its own and can attest to the lessons that students can learn through food as well as the difficulty of trying to provide that food on a consistent basis.

About five years ago they switched to an organic menu with a heavy emphasis on local. Finding what they need to feed a school of 250 isn't always easy.

"We need all the help we can get. That's one of our biggest struggles - the smaller local farms. You never know what they have and how much they have," said parent and volunteer Scott Robison, who added such a limited supply can make it difficult to plan a menu.

In order for schools to buy local, said Mercier, farmers have to know and be able to meet the needs of the school. So far this has not happened on a large scale, but she hopes that Schimke will be able to coordinate the effort.

According to Schwake, who has already implemented such a program in his district, buying local comes with many benefits and is good for the community as well as the students.

Surprisingly, he said, the price tag for this is very small. And as gas prices rise, local food can even be cheaper than the mass-produced stuff that is shipped in.

• Morgan Sailor is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. She is a senior at Arizona State University.

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