Your Life your connection to The Boston Globe

Locally grown crops freshen up school meals

WORCESTER -- Meals being dished out in the country's college dining halls and grade-school cafeterias are getting tastier and more nutritious thanks to a growing number of programs that encourage local farmers to sell their crops directly to schools.

The arrangements mean fresher meals for students, and they're also heaping new profits on farmers' plates.

"I care about what I eat, so I'm happy the school is doing what it can to help make meals healthier," said Joe Levering, a sophomore at Clark University who was surprised that the carrots he had at lunch Thursday came from a farm in Lunenberg, about 25 miles from the campus.

"And it's a great idea to support local farms so they could stay in business," he said.

Clark is one of about a dozen colleges in the state participating in the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, a three-year-old program that helps eliminate the middleman in food distribution by having more farmers bring their fruits, vegetables, and dairy products directly to campuses.

The arrangements reaped more than $415,000 for about 90 Massachusetts farmers last year.

More than 200 colleges and 1,000 public school districts in 35 states have similar programs, said Marion Kalb of the National Farm to School Program in Santa Fe .

The national program was launched in 2000 after schools in California and Florida started buying food directly from farmers. It now helps foster new programs with marketing, legal assistance, and purchasing arrangements.

The Massachusetts Farm to School Program was started by Kelly Erwin, who got the idea while working for the state agriculture department as a marketing specialist.

She attended a school food service trade show in 2002, when she tasted "the worst food you've ever had in your life," and decided to make a push for getting fresher ingredients into school kitchens.

After losing her job to state budget cuts, Erwin formed the Massachusetts Farm to School Project with about $20,000 from MassDevelopment, the state's finance and development authority, and Project Bread, a Boston-based anti-hunger organization.

In three years, the program has grown to include about 75 public school districts and a dozen colleges across the state. Fifty farms are delivering produce directly to schools and have partnered with about 40 smaller farmers to distribute their crops for them.