Feeding local, farm-fresh produce to students across Pennsylvania

Kayla Prag
May 13, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The food served at public schools can easily be disconnected from the surrounding area due to factors like the complexity of food supply chains, federal regulations, and food-safety concerns. Nearby farms often produce nutritious and environmentally friendly foods, but that food does not always make its way into local schools.

PA Harvest of the Month, a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Department of Education and Penn State’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, is connecting farms and schools in order to get more fresh, local produce into the diets of Pennsylvania’s students.

About PA Harvest of the Month

PA Harvest of the Month was launched in schools across Pennsylvania in August 2020. The program selects one Pennsylvania-grown, seasonal produce item per month for participating school districts to incorporate in their meal offerings. The goal is to provide locally sourced, healthy food to participating schools while supporting farmers and producers from across the state.

The program serves schools and childcare centers, allowing many of Pennsylvania’s children to benefit. It is made possible through a USDA Farm to School grant.

Benefits of the program

PA Harvest of the Month not only enhances the nutritional content of food, it also provides a unique opportunity for children to gain exposure to new fruits and vegetables, including beets, winter squash, and mushrooms.

PA Harvest of the Month was developed through Project PA, a state-wide program that promotes healthy eating behavior in children. Elaine McDonnell, assistant research professor of nutritional sciences and Director of Project PA, leads PA Harvest of the Month.

According to McDonnell, as more schools participate in the program, the hope is that Pennsylvanian farmers and producers will see increased demand for their in-season produce. Many children may even recognize the local farms where the produce is sourced from, which could help increase people’s connection to their community.

How it works

Beyond the produce calendar, PA Harvest of the Month provides signage, fact sheets, newsletters, and other promotional items on their website for participating schools. The project's e-newsletter is sent to every school district in Pennsylvania introducing the item of the month, giving food service directors ample time to prepare a menu including each item. The number of times an item of the month appears in school lunches is up to each district.

PA Harvest of the Month facilitates connections between schools and local producers by providing links on the PA Harvest of the Month website to PA producers. The program also offers recipes to school districts and families featuring that month’s produce. Other states including Vermont and California have had success with similar programs.

“In the past, many food services directors have expressed interest in a program like PA Harvest of the Month, but it is very time-consuming to develop at a local level,” said McDonnell.

The PA Harvest of the Month program does not require sign up; any school, childcare, adult daycare center, or summer feeding site is welcome to participate. Several school districts already have embraced the program despite the challenges of launching the initiative during the pandemic.

Launching during COVID-19

With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting the past school year—especially school food programs—PA Harvest of the Month was not able to gain as much visibility as it likely will in coming years.

“It has been thrilling watching many schools implement PA Harvest of the Month this year,” said McDonnell. “Seeing kids across the state try new products and enjoy them has been one of my great joys in this program. Looking to the fall and beyond, hopefully more districts across the state will incorporate nutritious food as we put the worst days of the pandemic behind us.”

School districts’ food service directors have expressed enthusiasm about the program.

“The PA Harvest of the Month program provided an educational component to the school café regarding the importance of eating locally grown foods,” said Grove City Area School District’s Food Service Director, Jennifer Reiser. “It also gave our Food & Nutrition Services Team the opportunity to encourage the students to sample new recipes and foods.”

“The posters provided helped us to market the fresh fruits and vegetables each month,” continued Reiser. “Overall, it added value to our school nutrition program.”

Project PA

The PA Harvest of the Month project is a culmination of nearly a decade's worth of work by Project PA to connect schools and farms.

Founded in 1995, Project PA is a state-wide program run through Penn State’s Department of Nutritional Sciences and funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

For 25 years, McDonnell has guided Project PA in helping school districts across the state improve the nutrition of their meals. Project PA provides training, support, and professional development opportunities for school food service employees.

In conjunction with many state and federal programs, Project PA has helped facilitate many changes to food service programs across the state. The organization has helped promote new initiatives like school breakfasts and healthier snack options. According to McDonnell, schools are now serving more fruits and vegetables than ever before, and the quality of meals served has greatly improved.

New research from Liu, Micha, Li, and Mozaffarian (2021) revealed that the diet quality of foods consumed at schools was higher than foods consumed by young people from any other source including grocery stores and restaurants. Diet quality for foods from schools improved significantly between 2003 and 2018. This improvement is the result of work and coordination at federal, state, and local levels.

“Throughout my time at Project PA, I have had the opportunity see many changes made to school food-services across the state,” said McDonnell. “I’m excited to continue watching PA Harvest of the Month gain state-wide growth and traction to improve the future of school lunches and promote farm-fresh produce across the commonwealth.”

Charles Orlofsky, Project PA’s media director, designed the program’s logo and materials for this project. Audrey Hess, a public health nutrition consultant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, worked as a partner in developing this program.

Reference

Liu, J., Micha, R., Li, Y., & Mozaffarian, D. (2021). Trends in food sources and diet quality among US children and adults, 2003-2018. JAMA Network Open, 4(4), e215262-e215262.

 

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 13, 2021