TUPELO • Young students in the Tupelo Public School District know exactly where an increasing amount of food on their lunch trays comes from – local farms and gardens they planted themselves.

Representatives with the USDA’s Southeast regional office visited Lawndale Elementary School on Friday for National School Lunch Week to eat lunch with students and see the school’s garden and greenhouse where the children help grow vegetables.

Willie Taylor, the USDA’s regional food and nutrition service administrator for the Southeast, said they chose to visit Mississippi because it’s a state with an effective school lunch program.

He added that programs like Tupelo’s Growing Healthy Waves, a partnership with FoodCorps that helps get students excited about healthy eating through hands-on learning, are great for students.

“If the students see it being grown or they participate in the actual planting and growing of the food, then they take ownership and they enjoy it more because they know that’s something they had a hand in,” Taylor said.

Growing Healthy Waves coordinator Donna Loden is a retired teacher who now works on a volunteer basis with pre-K through sixth-grade students at nine schools in the district.

“If we can start changing those mindsets early about embracing vegetables ... we can definitely have better performing students academically, but also healthier citizenry,” Loden said.

Loden also facilitated a partnership with Native Son Farm to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for schools on a near-monthly basis and introduce new foods to students by featuring a “harvest of the month” item. The schools also get produce from St. Bethany Fresh in Pontotoc and Topashaw Farms in Vardaman from time to time.

A Friday afternoon event at Native Son Farm focused on that exact topic – linking local farmers with schools in the state.

The Mississippi Farm to School Network and the Alliance of Sustainable Farms partnered to host a farm to school training and mixer event featuring panels with farmers and school food service directors that wrapped up with a tour of the farm.

A total of 70 farmers, school food service directors and community members attended the event.

The ultimate goal of programs like this is to facilitate and build partnerships between local schools and farms. Sunny Baker, co-director of the Mississippi Farm to School Network, said they can in turn encourage children to become farmers and produce food for their community as adults.

“In Mississippi, even though we’re an ag state and it’s our number one export, we import 90% of the food that we eat, which is a crazy disparity when we have some of the best growing land in the country,” Baker said.

Samantha Benjamin-Kirk, the USDA Farm to School regional lead, explained that farmers who provide food for schools create community and in turn, lifetime clients.

“Each and every one of us have a food system,” Benjamin-Kirk said. “Each of us are responsible for going out and procuring the food which we eat. That becomes our community.”

blake.alsup@journalinc.com

Twitter: @AlsupTheWriter

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