Kansas City farmers are providing more students with fresh, local produce for lunch | KCUR 89.3

Tomatoes and lettuce line the fields at Mike Pearl’s farm on a windy day in Parkville, Missouri. Now he has plans to plant more.

“We’re going to have a lot of the usual suspects, if you will: watermelon and cantaloupe later in the season. You know, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes,” said Pearl.

Despite the winds, he said, this year’s crops are off to a good start, and are for some very special customers: local students. Pearl said he’s been excited about these customers ever since He never grew up eating products like this for lunch.

“I won’t tell you how old I am, but I can’t imagine in my school cafeteria eating quinoa, or, I don’t know, fresh green cabbage,” said Pearl.

This is Pearl’s first year working with the KC Food Hub to provide products to local students. This year will be full of activity.

This fall, the Food Center will serve 38 schools in two local school districts. This is a jump from the six schools they started last fall, said Katie Nixon, president of the Food Center.

She attributes the increase, in part, to the pandemic — when suppliers suddenly were unable to provide schools with the food they needed.

So it’s like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? “Then they start thinking outside the box,” Nixon said.

Tomatoes, lettuce, and potatoes line the fields on Mike Pearl’s farm in Parkville, Missouri, being grown at local schools this fall.

Lee’s Summit School District began speaking to the food center in 2019, but when the pandemic spread and schools began serving children at home, they had to adjust their plans.

When there was a shortage of food to send home, such as baby carrots and apple slices, she knew she could turn to the food center for help, said Laurie Daniela, district nutrition manager.

“We know the farmers here. We know what the weather is, and it’s local. It is in their heart and soul. They will make sure that their crops are OK, that everything is done and the product gets to the center, and then it can be sent to schools.”

This fall, Lee’s Summit will serve 26 of its schools with products from local farmers.

But not every neighborhood can do that. Budgets are tight, especially with the federal pandemic relief waivers for free meals set to expire at the end of June. And produce from local farms can be more expensive.

Danella said fresh produce fits in her budget because there’s less waste and a better shelf life.

“Lettuce is just a phenomenon. I mean, it’s beautiful and lasts forever. When you get prepackaged lettuce, you can often get two or three days of it,” Daniela said.

The De Soto School District will also be purchasing produce from the KC Food Hub this fall, but only on Fridays.

Buying once a week will help them feel comfortable buying locally, even with high prices and labor shortages limiting what they can buy, said Julen Baldner, district director of student nutrition.

“I like to eat a lot of watermelon and cantaloupe. However, that takes a lot of chopping, and when you have our biggest school, we serve about 1,000 kids, or 1,000 meals,” Baldner said. “That’s a lot of watermelon to chop if we didn’t have the labor, staff, and manpower to do it.”


Lee’s Summit School District has been able to serve up local produce in its salad bars for the past year.

It can also be difficult to identify farmers who can secure enough product for school districts, Baldner said.

Joe Brett Rankin, professor at MU Extension’s Farm to School, said that while interest in these programs has slowly increased over the years, barriers such as cost, labor and awareness are fairly common.

She said from the farm to the school programs Wants To hear these types of questions in a series of hearings held during July with the Missouri Department of Agriculture. If they know what problems exist, they can help fix them.

“Do they have the equipment? Although this can be easily remedied, have their employees been trained in food preparation and cooking more than they might have in the past few years?” said Brett Rankin.

The USDA announced a $60 million purchase of farm-to-school commodities. Brett Rankin said such grants can help school districts participate despite limited budgets.

Nixon, president of the KC Food Hub, said local farms are only part of the solution to the supply chain problems facing schools.

De Soto and Lee’s Summit counties say they cannot fully rely on local farmers because they will need a back-up source of food for their thousands of students if something happens, like a flood or fire.

But the challenges go beyond just school districts — local farms need extra support, too.

Nixon said producers need to know school districts early so they can plant them.

“That takes time, they need to grow the product and get used to it and help build a local diet. But the demand is there, and I’m really excited about that,” Nixon said.


Students at Sunset Valley Elementary School get food from the salad bar for lunch. This fall, more schools in Lee’s Summit School District will be getting produce from local farmers.

The two school districts that partner with the food center are looking forward to an opportunity to teach children about local farmers.

De Soto’s School District will hold “Fridays from Farm to Fork” to highlight the farm that has grown a specific product. Baldner said she hopes this will help the students understand where their food comes from.

“I feel that one thing that could be lacking in education is understanding where and how we get our food,” Baldner said.

Back on his Parkville farm, Pearl said that despite the increased demand, he doesn’t plan to get rich selling it to schools this fall. He said it had to do with the feeling he gets from doing it.

“We help educate children. We hope to help a lifelong practice of nutritious eating, eating for your health, eating and trying things you have never tried before,” Pearl said. “It’s a warm and fuzzy thing to get out of it.”

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