January 2015
Farm & Field

Bridging the Food Gap

  From left, Ranae Bartlett and Dr. Terri Johnson. two school board members, Madison Mayor Troy Trulock and Madison City Schools Superintendent Dr. Dee Fowler with a lunchroom employee in the Mill Creek Elementary School kitchen.

Farm Collaborative brings locally grown food to Huntsville schools.

Because of a partnership with North Alabama farms, students at schools in the cities of Huntsville and Madison, and others in Madison County can now receive more locally grown foods like watermelon and sweet potatoes.

"It’s tough for the small farmers to compete with the mega-farmers," said Marty Tatara, child nutrition supervisor for the Madison City Schools.

The Farm Food Collaborative, a project of the Food Bank of North Alabama, is the area’s first local hub to aid family farms in selling their fruit and vegetables to schools, restaurants, workplace cafeterias, distributors and grocery stores. According to the Food Bank of North Alabama, families in North Alabama spend $2.4 billion on food grown annually outside the area; meanwhile, 59 percent of local farmers report a net loss. Bridging that gap is the hub’s aim.

The collaborative officially launched its partnership with the school districts last fall. School officials ate lunch that day at Mill Creek Elementary School in Madison and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Huntsville. The menu featured sweet potatoes from Haynes & Sons Farms in Cullman.

Madison Mayor Troy Trulock, left, with Madison City Schools Superintendent Dr. Dee Fowler in the Mill Creek Elementary School lunchroom with kids all around them.  

Fall 2012 marked the soft launch for the program. Since that time, the collaborative has contributed to making close to 500,000 pounds of produce available. That’s more than $290,000 worth of local food.

It is rare for Child Nutrition directors from nearby school districts to work together so closely, said Joey Vaughn, head of Huntsville City Schools Child Nutrition Program, in a news release.

Other sponsors for the partnership are the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Boeing, Walmart, the Appalachian Regional Commission, Alabama’s Mountains, Rivers and Valleys Resource Conservation & Development Council, and Wallace Center Winrock International.

Early in the 2014-2015 school year, watermelon from third-generation Haynes Farms was on the menu. A fifth-generation farm, Scott’s Orchard in northern Madison County, trucked in apples for serving in October, Tatara said.

Other fruit from around the state in recent months included Chilton County peaches and satsuma oranges from South Alabama.

  The kickoff of the North Alabama Food Bank at Martin Luther King Elementary in Huntsville.  From left are Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong, Kathryn Strickland with the North Alabama Food Bank, Madison City Child Nutrition Supervisor Marty Tatara, Boeing-Huntsville Vice President Tony Jones, State Agriculture Department Executive Terry Martin and Madison City Schools Superintendent Dr. Dee Fowler.

Beside Haynes Farms and Scott’s Orchard, other participants in the collaborative include Jackie Loyd of Jackson County who grows squash, Jacob Sandlin of Cullman County who plants and harvests heirloom tomatoes, and Wade Whitehead of Cullman County who farms with his extended family.

"We offer a fruit choice, grain, vegetable and milk every day," she said.

Planning for produce is "last minute" based on picking times and the weather.

More than 9,000 students attend Madison city schools, Tatara said, and the system is growing rapidly. In 1998, there were six schools, and now the town has 12. Each school features food storage, and that means the collaborative can send a refrigerated truck to the farm and easily meet the Madison schools’ refrigerated truck for delivery.

In an interview with The Huntsville Times, Kathryn Strickland, executive director of the Food Bank, called the launch of the Farm Food Collaborative a win-win-win partnership for local farmers, the state’s economy and Alabama families making decisions on healthy food choices.

The non-profit North Alabama Food Bank opened its doors in 1984 to help feed the hungry. For children today, according to agency officials, that means more than 59,000 youngsters plus their parents and guardians face some "stark anxieties."

Seventy-seven percent of these children qualify for such programs as free or reduced cost meals at school.

Those "stark anxieties" include the following questions:

"Should I buy groceries or pay the utility bill?"

"Will the food last until my next paycheck?"

"Even though I skipped dinner, will the kids have enough to eat tonight?"

Reduced price and free breakfasts and lunches at school are one of the answers to these fears. The National School Lunch Program was established when President Harry Truman signed the act authorizing it in 1946.

The Child Nutrition programs, said Tatara, are re-authorized every 4 years. She plans the menus and coordinates with the cafeteria managers at the 12 schools.

"Our children are great fruit eaters, vegetables not as much. I’ve literally watched them go ‘watermelon’ when they see it."

There’s the "eternal argument": "Do you put it on their plate?" versus "Do you not put it on their plate?"

Tatara will have "the little guys" take the food and use positive remarks to encourage them to eat it.

"A lot of times children are more comfortable with their peers … at least at trying it."

The website for the new Farm Food Collaborative is www.farm-food.org.

Maureen Drost is a freelance writer from Huntsville.