March 31, 2000 | By: Mark Eclov

Kentucky farmers who are willing to add or expand their fruit and vegetable operations may find ready markets for their produce as close as their local school systems.

The first major step to make this happen in the Commonwealth gets underway May 1 when federal and state officials, farmers, and Kentucky school food administrators will meet at the Bengal Sports center in Georgetown, Kentucky. Conference registration begins at 7 a.m. and opening ceremonies start at 8:30 a.m.

The day-long meeting is one of an anticipated ten regional workshop/conferences being conducted throughout the United States as part of the USDA's "Small Farms/School Meals Initiative."

"The initiative is an important step toward improving both the economic stability of small farmers and the long-term health of children in our school systems," said Shirley Watkins, USDA Under- Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

The initiative's primary goal is to help states establish local production, processing and distribution arrangements that will allow farmers to sell fresh produce to local schools.

"And the children get the benefit of adding fresh fruits and vegetables to their diets. It is a win-win situation for everyone involved," added Watkins.

Some of the initiative's other goals include fostering healthier meals in the nation's school systems, establishing better times for student meals, developing programs to establish gardens and bringing nutrition education classes into every school.

The Kentucky meeting will focus on identifying and then suggesting ways to break down the barriers to success.

"Each state has different obstacles to overcome," said Bonnie Tanner, head of the family and consumer sciences department in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

"In Kentucky, some of hurdles may include reworking state food procurement laws, retraining farmers to grow more vegetable and fruit crops, and establishing processing plants that can use local labor to create food products that can be easily used in Kentucky school food programs," said Tanner.

Featured speakers already committed to attend include undersecretary Watkins and representatives from the federal departments of education, defense and energy. A host of state department officials also are expected to attend.

Possible break-out sessions will include talks about the various kinds of federal support, state and local health regulations related to food production and processing, what farmers need to know to conduct business with school systems, and farm-to-school programs that already are already working in other states.

The event will be hosted by county and state personnel of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension service. Financial support for the conference will be provided by all of Kentucky's USDA agencies, the State Department of Agriculture, the Kentucky School Food Service Association, the Governor's Family Farm Commission and the Kentucky Department of Education.

"All farmers and school administrators with an interest in fostering this form of local relationship are urged to attend," added Tanner. "We hope that this meeting is early enough in the year and that we get enough accomplished that some producers may be able to put some seed in the ground in anticipation of a new market for their products that could also be of real benefit to Kentucky's children."

Details on the event will be circulated by various state departments. Interested producers and school officials can check with their local county Extension office for meeting details that should be available by mid-April.


Bonnie Tanner 606-257-3887