Pilot school program uses Ontario produce to raise funds, promote healthy eating

Fresh from the Farm logoIt’s a new initiative that’s a win for farmers, students and healthy eating.

Fresh from the Farm is a pilot program being launched this fall in select school boards that will let students fundraise for their schools by selling Ontario fruits and vegetables.

Modeled after a similar program in Manitoba, the Ontario initiative is a partnership between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF), Ministry of Education, Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (OFVGA) and Dietitians of Canada.

It’s being rolled out to 379 elementary and secondary schools at ten different school boards in Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford Counties, the city of London, and districts of Cochrane (Timmins) and Algoma (Sault St. Marie).

Starting in September, students in the pilot schools will be selling eight pound boxes of apples for $20 and a 10 pound root vegetable bag for $10 that will include carrots, onions, potatoes and parsnips.

“We’ve seen how successful this program has been in Manitoba and we hope it will be in Ontario as well,” says Jeff O’Donnell, Team Lead Healthy Eating with OMAF’s Business Development Branch. “Not only does it help generate funds for school activities by using local food, but it also connects farms and schools and helps promote healthy eating.”

In 2011, new nutrition standards under Ontario’s new School Food and Beverage Policy came into effect for school venues, programs and events.

This meant that traditional fundraising initiatives used by schools, such as cookie dough, chocolate covered almonds, chocolate bars and other items, were no longer available to help generate revenue.

Under Fresh from the Farm, each school will keep 40 per cent of the produce sales for their fundraising efforts, 50 per cent of sales will be returned to Ontario’s farmers, and 10 per cent will be retained by the program to ensure it can be self-sustaining beyond the initial pilot stage.

Farmers selling to the program will receive fair market wholesale prices for their produce, and according to the organization representing fruit and vegetable growers, it could mean significant volumes if the program is successful.

“We’re anticipating a minimum of 250 participant schools this year and even with low sales, we are estimating 37,000 bundles of produce,” says Alison Robertson, Program Manager with the OFVGA, which is handling produce procurement and distribution for the pilot. “If we get nearly all schools and have good sales, we could go as high as 69,000 bundles. That is many, many tractor trailer loads of apples and root vegetables that will be sold into the Ontario market.”

Manitoba’s program, launched three years ago, shows the impact such an initiative can have, Robertson adds.

In 2011, 268 schools raised $245,545 both for Manitoba schools and producers, which translated into more than 600,000 pounds of Manitoba vegetables being sold. In 2012, the program reached 432 schools and daycares and distributed just under 900,000 pounds of vegetables.

Ontario schools eligible for Fresh from the Farm have until October 7 to sign up and students will be fundraising until October 18. Produce will begin to be delivered to the schools the first week of November.

Interest is also coming from other school boards as well as local heath units.

A full evaluation of the pilot will take place with all program partners in December and O’Donnell says if it is successful, the hope is to roll out targeted expansion to other regions and school boards in the province.

“We are trying to build this as a provincial level program. Feedback from the schools has been very positive so far,” he says. “We see this as a real opportunity to promote local food literacy and to tell Ontario’s agri-food story. Good things grow in Ontario so let’s get them into schools and get kids interested in healthy eating.”

More information about Fresh from the Farm is available at www.eatrightontario.ca/en/FreshFromTheFarm.

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