SALISBURY — During a recent school lunch this spring, kindergartners at Isenberg Elementary School bit into sweet, fresh strawberries.
They smiled in surprise when they found out that the fruit they were eating was picked just days earlier at a farm less than 15 miles away. Some of them had even visited there.
“They’re good,” said Valerie Esco. “Really juicy.”
Strawberries and tomatoes are two of the produce items that schools across North Carolina receive from Patterson Farms in southwestern Rowan County.
The farm is a supplier for the N.C. Farm to School program, which is run by the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
This year, the Rowan-Salisbury School System started participating in the program again after leaving it for about three years, said Libby Post, the school system’s child nutrition director.
Post said the system previously left the program because it was difficult to use for both the schools and the growers.
“We still bought North Carolina produce a lot, but we didn’t buy it through the Farm to School program,” Post said. “Now, they have just really improved the program.”
She said the program offers more food items and allows school systems to make orders several times a year instead of all at once. Behind-the-scenes logistics are a lot easier, Post said.
In May, the school system received and served 600 cases of North Carolina strawberries — many of them from Patterson Farms — through N.C. Farm to School.
The system also buys produce from North Carolina and surrounding states through its vendor, Foster-Caviness, which is based in High Point.
Foster-Caviness’ Friends of Farmers program defines produce as local if it comes from within a roughly 200-mile radius. The Farm to School program sets its boundaries at the North Carolina border.
“People define local differently... because our food supply is global, it really is,” Post said.
Roughly 25 percent of the school system’s fruits and vegetables come from local sources, she said, and now more of the produce is grown in North Carolina.
“We’re definitely looking to increase that,” she said. “One of the problems, of course, is that the best growing season for this area is in the summer when we’re not in school.”
Ted Fogleman, assistant director of distribution with N.C. Farm to School, said about 23 growers are providing food for the program statewide.
So far, Patterson Farms is the only grower in Rowan County currently participating. Doug Patterson, who owns the farm with his family, said it has been supplying N.C. Farm to School for several years.
“We’re involved with the program because it’s another way to get local produce to the community and to children,” Patterson said. “That keeps it in the community and in the state.”
To participate, farmers must have a minimum of $2 million liability insurance, and they must be Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified.
Eligible growers in Rowan and other counties across the state are invited to join the N.C. Farm to School co-op, said Heather Barnes, the program’s marketing specialist.
“If we have a farmer who is interested, we definitely want to talk with them,” Barnes said.
Program representatives make sure that interested farmers can meet its packaging, labeling and food safety standards, she said. They also ensure that each farmer is growing a crop that is actually needed — and enough of that crop to meet the need.
The sizes of the participating farms range from a few acres to hundreds. Growers receive 100 percent of the money from produce sales, Barnes said, and there are no added fees for transportation or storage.
N.C. Farm to School began in 1997 as a strawberry pilot program at 15 to 20 schools, Fogleman said.
By 2007, about 70 school systems had joined. Now, a total of 95 school systems are part of the program.
The Department of Agriculture oversees the bidding process with farmers to set prices.
Then, the annual N.C. Farm to School calendar lets schools know when different items will be available in North Carolina throughout the year. School nutrition directors can order produce from that menu, and the orders are divided among growers based on the size of each farm.
The Department of Agricultures transports the produce from farms to one of two food distribution warehouses. One is located in Creedmoor, and the other is right here in Salisbury.
Within three days, the produce is then delivered to the school system, which distributes it to the schools where it will be served.
This year, the Department of Agriculture purchased a new cooler for the Salisbury warehouse with a $160,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation.
The Salisbury warehouse stores not only food for the Farm to School program, but also items for the state’s emergency food distribution program and other food distribution activities.
The new cooler, which measures 30 feet by 60 feet, lets the department store a larger amount of perishable items. Also, produce that used to be left inside running food trucks can now be stored in the warehouse.
“It’s definitely going to be more efficient,” Barnes said.
In its 2011-12 school year, the Farm to School program topped $1 million in sales for the first time in its 15-year history. Nearly 1,600 schools participated that year, ordering more than 1.5 million pounds of fresh North Carolina produce.
Barnes said school systems and farmers alike are starting to realize how students benefit from the program.
“They’re getting fresh North Carolina produce to schools and on kids’ plates, and the time lag between when it is picked and served is lower,” she said. “This cultivates them wanting to eat local produce as children, so that they grow up wanting to buy North Carolina produce.”
For more information about N.C. Farm to School, visit www.ncfarmtoschool.com or call 919-575-4490.