With each issue, Trib+Health brings you an interview with experts on issues related to health care. Here is this week's subject:
Andrew Smiley is deputy director of the Sustainable Food Center, a nonprofit promoting local food systems in Austin. He has 20 years of experience in sustainable food systems and agriculture, and has worked with the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) since 2005. We spoke with him recently about the SFC's Farm to School Program and how it's helping Austin's kids eat healthier.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Health: Can you explain how the Farm to School Program got started and what the program looks like today?
Andrew Smiley: I’ll provide a little bit of background. In 2007, we started working with Austin ISD on farm-to-school and food system education activities. It revolved around the availability of local foods in the school cafeteria. And some of the educational programs we did included after-school programs, classroom lessons, and veggie sampling and meet-the-farmer events in the school cafeteria. At the time, it was a small-scaled program, which we were able to manage with our current staff. As we grew, we started adding interns to assist with some elements of the program. And now that local food purchasing was institutionalized within procedures and purchasing protocol for the entire Austin district, we needed even greater reach.
So, a few years ago, we created the farm-to-school ambassador program in partnership with Charlotte Herzele in the UT nutrition department. And the class that she was teaching was an externship class, where students would get credit for doing work out in the field related to nutrition. And it was really successful, it has been really successful, and we’ve also opened it up now to folks outside of that nutrition class.
We recruit from our regular volunteer list, from University of Texas, Texas State, Huston Tillotson. This year, we’ve got 10 to 12 ambassadors that will work with us to lead the farm-to-school educational activities. That is the veggie sampling activities, and also to help with the coordination of our meet-the-farmer events, where farmers visit the school and interact with the kids and talk with the kids about how they grow their food, maybe bring in tools or herbs or things that they can smell, or other plants they can look at or touch.
Trib+Health: What do you have planned for the coming school year?
Smiley: We’ve got about 35 veggie samplings set up for this year, and that number may grow, and we’re anticipating probably 20 to 25 meet-the-farmer visits. The majority of the participants are elementary schools, but we also work in middle schools.
Trib+Health: What are the veggie samplings like for the students?
Smiley: When we do the veggie samplings, we do those in the cafeterias during the lunch shift.
So, as kids are going through the line, we invite them to try a watermelon radish, for example. And because we're doing it in the lunchroom, during all the lunch shifts, it reaches the majority of the student body.
The veggie sampling is really effective. We’ve found success at encouraging young people, kids, to try new fruits and vegetables by offering a sample, and then the next time they see that produce on their lunch line, they are more likely to choose those items.
Trib+Health: What is the primary goal of the farm-to-school program?
Smiley: We are opening up new sales channels for local farmers, but from the nutrition perspective, it is introducing young people to new fruits and vegetables with the expectation, based on evaluation data we have, that they will start eating more fruits and vegetables because of the availability of local foods, and then the relationship building between the kids and the foods. And just the awareness.
Trib+Health: Have you measured the outcomes of the program?
Smiley: We worked with University of Texas School of Public Health a few years ago to conduct a rigorous evaluation of our specific approach. We used pre- and post-test, fruit and vegetable frequency questionnaire, and also tested for other things like awareness and motivation and food preferences, for both healthy and unhealthy foods.
And in that evaluation, we found that students who were aware of locally grown foods in the cafeteria, and who participated in at least two other elements of farm-to-school and food systems education — maybe a farmer visited their classroom, or they went on a farm field trip, or they participated in an after school program — increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by up to one serving a day. Which is quite significant.
Trib+Health: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Smiley: You know, the ambassadors are just an incredible asset, individually and group-wise. Without those volunteers, we would not be able to have nearly the reach that we do with their support.They’re just such a critical part of our work.