September 16, 2021

Farm to school taking root

Program coming this autumn to students in Cortland County

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Robert “Bob Cat” Bonagura talks Wednesday about the tomatoes in his greenhouse at Main Street Farms in Homer. Bonagura, and Emily Fusco, the local Farm to School program coordinator, will speak to schoolchildren this fall in a program coordinated by Cornell Cooperative Extension that may lead to local produce being used in school lunches.

If everything works out as planned, in a few years, Cortland County students will eat lunches prepared with locally grown food, including food that they will have grown themselves in school gardens that will have built themselves.

That’s the goal, if the initial Farm to School program takes root over the next year.

But in the immediate future, students will receive visits from Emily Fusco and Robert “BobCat” Bonagura. Fusco is an Americorps member who is assigned to the Cortland area as the program coordinator to make educational presentations to students on food and farming. She will be joined and helped by Bonagura, one of the principals of Main Street Farms, an organic farm and education center in Homer.

Fusco serves as the local representative of the National Farm to School Network; her position is funded through a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. She’s jointly employed by both Cornell Cooperative Extension for Cortland County and the Rural Health Network. Fusco graduated from SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry campus in Syracuse in 2018 and is pursuing master’s degrees in sustainable communities and public administration from Binghamton University.

Her goal over the next year is to get students to understand the connection between farming and the food they eat.

“We’re trying to get rid of the disconnect,” she said.

Bonagura will join Fusco on some of these classroom visits, and he’ll also lead solo presentations. Bonagura has worked with the Farm to School program before, but on the food production end for two years in Broome and Tioga counties, growing romaine lettuce, kale, beets and carrots for school lunches.

“At that time, our role was helping them get food into their local cafeteria,” he said.

This time, he’ll go into classrooms. But he’s done plenty of farm education before, both on his farm and at various events and fairs.

Bonagura and Fusco have already started, having given presentations to students at the Appleby Elementary School in Marathon and the Cortland County Ag-stravaganza fair in June. Fusco has also been making the rounds of farmers’ markets, including the Cortland Main Street farmer’s market on Tuesday.

She hopes to help students build a few gardens this fall and have students seed them next spring.

“Ideally, we want every school to have some form of school garden, so the students themselves learn how to grow food,” she said.

Fusco said she hopes the education program gains additional grant funding in the future, so the program can connect local farmers with schools, much like the program that Bonagura worked with in Broome and Tioga counties.

Fusco said she will take the first step toward that goal over the next year by setting up taste tests days in which students will be served meals prepared with local ingredients. Students then rate the foods.

“That’s our way of gathering whether it’s a good recipe or not,” Fusco said.

Bonagura and Fusco will also be helped by a team at Cortland County Cooperative Extension — by Heather Birdsall, the grant’s administrator, as well as Rebecca Ireland- Perry, the 4-H team leader, and Barbara Henza, the finance and consumer educator.

The effort comes as the state is increasing its contribution to provide a school lunch — as long as it features food from New York.

“The New York contribution to school lunch remained the same for 40 years,” said Richard Ball, the state Agriculture and Markets commissioner, in Groton last week. That was 5.9 cents a meal.

But it will increase to 25 cents a meal, “provided the school uses 30% of its food from New York producers.”

“We’ve been working with schools across New York,” Ball said after he helped re-form an FFA chapter at Groton Central High School. In particular, New York City schools, which serve a million meals a day, now feature New York milk apples, potatoes and meat on “New York Thursdays.”

“Broome County schools are doing it, too,” Ball said. The Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services won a $98,000 state grant in 2018 to buy farm products and equip schools to serve local foods to 21,000 students in 10 school districts.

Ball has a larger context in mind. New York farms sold $5.37 billion worth of product in 2017 — $69.5 million in Cortland County. Getting more school districts and public entities that provide food to spend more on New York produce would open up just that many more markets for New York’s farmers, including Ball himself, who owns a vegetable farm in Schoharie County.

Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.