FARMINGTON — School districts in San Juan County are part of a growing group of districts across the country that are purchasing more fruits and vegetables from local farms to encourage students to eat more healthy foods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service recently conducted its first Farm to School Census to determine the prevalance of farm to school programs.

The federal Farm to School program has several goals, including supporting and encouraging schools across the country to buy more local farm products, said Kevin Concannon, the under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, in a phone interview last month.

Wayne Fournier, production manager for Farmington Municipal School District’s Central Kitchen, loads a cart with fresh fruits and vegetables on
Wayne Fournier, production manager for Farmington Municipal School District's Central Kitchen, loads a cart with fresh fruits and vegetables on Tuesday at the Central Kitchen in Farmington. (Jon Austria /The Daily Times)

"When you can point out to students these foods are grown locally or in the region, more kids are willing to try that," Concannon said, adding that buying locally also helps growers and ranchers.

About 13,000 school districts nationwide participated in the survey, which was conducted this spring. In New Mexico, 38 of the 92 public school districts responded to the survey, including Bloomfield School District, Farmington Municipal School District and the Central Consolidated School District.

Concannon said the census revealed about $350 million is spent nationally on farm to school programs.

New Mexico school districts in the 2011-2012 school year spent $7.59 million on food. Of that, $972,271 was spent on local produce.

In Colorado and New Mexico, Concannon said the five most commonly purchased local foods were apples, beans, melons, milk and cantaloupe.

Both Bloomfield and Farmington schools have been purchasing apples and pears from Farmington grower Kerby Orchard.

"This year, we were able to get cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, sweet bell peppers, tomatoes and watermelons from farms in New Mexico," said Suzanne Bryant, dietician for the Farmington Municipal School District.

Bryant said about $90,000 is spent annually on purchasing fruits and vegetables from state farms and orchards, and $5,900 was spent on products from Kerby Orchard in the last three months.

Each Farmington school cafeteria has nutrition bars stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Also, Apache and McCormick Elementary schools participate in a program that serves students healthy afternoon snacks. Bryant said snacks -- such as kiwi, canteloupe, broccolini and jicama -- are prepared for students to encourage them to try new foods and educate them on the benefits of healthy eating.

"They provide so many vitamins and minerals, and they are a good source of fiber," Bryant said. "All the antioxidants we know help fight chronic illnesses including heart disease, cancer, various types of diabetes."

In the Bloomfield School District, JoAnn Valdez, an administrative assistant, works with the district to purchase food. She said that students have enjoyed the locally grown fruit from Kerby Orchard, and elementary school students have especially liked the smaller fruit from the orchard.

"We have great results with them eating the fresh fruits and vegetables," Valdez said.

Because of the amount of produce the orchard sells to the two local school districts, the company offers the districts a 20 to 25 percent discount, said Leslie Kerby, the orchard's manager and operator.

Kerby said the orchard has worked with area schools for as long as he can remember.

"I think it's good they've gone to pushing more nutritious stuff," Kerby said. "It's advantageous to both of us."

Concannon said that American customers have started to expect locally grown products on store shelves and in students' lunches. And that, he said, helps communities thrive.

"We worry about the vitality of rural communities of the country. With population diminishing, schools are reinvesting in local farms and that's a good thing," he said.

ONLINE

For more information about the USDA's first-ever Farm to School Census, go to fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool/census

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and jkellogg@daily-times.com. Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.