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  1. Hernando

Farm-to-school could be a win-win for Hernando County schools and local growers. But getting it to work may take time.

TAILYR IRVINE | Times Students from Genesis Prepatory School pick strawberries from a field at JG Ranch in Brooksville. Last year, Hernando County Schools got a federal grant for a farm-to-school initiative that attempts to get more regionally grown produce to schools in the county. The owners of JG Ranch are considering joining the initiative.
Published Mar. 19

BROOKSVILLE — Mike DeFelice knows the struggles that all farmers know: Sometimes it's hard to get things to grow.

DeFelice, president of the Hernando County Growers Association, opened 12 Oaks Community Farms four years ago, and he's seen an abnormally wet or dry season tank crops from time to time. So he's quick to get into the complexities of the latest thing he's trying to grow in the Hernando County soil — even though it's a partnership, not a plant.

Last year, the Hernando County School District landed a $40,000 federal farm-to-school grant, money meant to bring students closer to local agriculture. Those efforts have taken the form of educational activities like school gardens, but Lori Drenth, the district's director of food and nutritional services, also wants to put more locally grown produce on students' plates.

That partnership may have seemed like an easy win for farmers and the school district, but Drenth and DeFelice both said it's proven tough.

"It's more complex than anyone could ever imagine," Drenth said.

For the school district, it's meant matching what local farmers offer with what students will eat. Plus, the district must get School Board approval for purchases, based on harvest schedules.

Each party has its own thoughts on which purchasing model would work best.

The district has favored buying based on individual farmers' bids, Drenth said. DeFelice said local farmers worry about creating competition among small farms with smaller margins.

He sees promise in his preferred model: Farmers working collectively with the district's produce distributor and moving their goods into a centralized facility. The district could buy what it wants, and the rest could go to the distributor's other clients or be sold wholesale to local restaurants.

For farmers to qualify for the farm-to-school initiative, they need certifications that require costly infrastructure for refrigeration and distribution, DeFelice said. With the collective system, they could build that in one centralized location. But to finance it, they need the guarantee of being able to sell to schools and also sell produce the school district doesn't want.

"It's entirely a chicken-and-egg" problem, DeFelice said.

These kinds of problems arise often when local farms and school districts start working together, said Matt Smith, a sustainable agriculture and food systems agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension. School districts must work within budgets and feed thousands of kids every day. Meanwhile, every tomato or strawberry costs more for a small farmer to grow than for larger farmers who work with distributors, as the locals produce on a smaller scale.

"Everyone comes in with their own simple preconception about what it takes to run a school lunchroom and what it takes to be a farmer," Smith said.

Despite some disconnects, the farmers and the district are pushing ahead on what they see as a mutually beneficial project. Drenth said she hopes to have local produce options for school lunches two days a week on average. She wants kids to appreciate the food, which means telling them when they're enjoying a vegetable — pizza with sweet-potato-based crust has been a hit before — and telling them where it comes from.

"What we really want to show is, 'This came from this farm,'" she said, "with a picture of the farmer."

It's crucial that kids understand where their food comes from, DeFelice said, especially in a rural county like Hernando. Existing farms won't survive if residents don't make an effort to buy local or don't know what they would be missing if sprawling subdivisions cover fields of strawberries.

"It's something that everyone should be exposed to," he said. "I can't tell you how many times I ask somebody, 'Do you know where this (food) came from?' and they say, 'The store.'"

DeFelice and Drenth look at farm-to-school partnerships as taking many forms, they said, whether it's produce in a cafeteria or a new garden at Chocachatti Elementary School.

At Wiscon Road's JG Ranch, already a destination for school field trips, manager Jeff Casey said kids can take many lessons from farming. Among them: It can take a while for something good to grow.

"Everyone wants this instant gratification," he said. "You take a seed, and you plant it. You don't come back that afternoon and have a bush."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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