As the fall harvest begins, the new school year is back into full swing. Farm kids are headed back to class following a summer of hard work helping Mom and Dad around the family farm. They also honed their skills in animal care and crop production in preparing to show at county fairs. Importantly, their education doesn’t stop just because it is summer.

There has been a lot of talk lately about what happens in our schools as it relates to food and farming. When my wife, Melanie, and I send our son and daughter to class each day, we count on them having a fully balanced, nutritious meal. It is important that our young people learn healthy behaviors at a young age. Already growing up with an understanding of agriculture, it isn’t hard to get that point across to them. They see firsthand what it takes to grow food. However, most children are not that lucky.

This past summer, I attended “Capital for a Day” in Rochester, New York. It was an effort by Governor Cuomo’s administration to send state officials like the Commissioners of Agriculture and Markets and Office of General Services to hear from people outside of Albany, New York. One of the panel discussions involved the need to get more locally grown food into our school systems. Sadly, too many kids today rely on junk food to get them through the day. That has to change.

Increasing access to the freshest of foods has long been a priority of New York Farm Bureau. Whether it is at regional food banks or in school cafeterias, our consumers are more than those who walk through the doors of a supermarket or farm stand. Eating a fresh apple or snacking on yogurt gives students healthy options and helps them develop strong eating habits that they can take into adulthood. Schools are also another avenue for farmers to sell their products.

The state realizes this importance and is making efforts to increase the procurement from New York farms. Having fresh, local food prepared in the school cafeteria, as opposed to feeding students processed food that is just warmed up for lunch, is a win-win for consumers and farmers alike. But I encourage New York to take the next step as well. It isn’t just a matter of students knowing their food, but they also need to know their farms.

Feeding youth with farming truths

As we feed their stomachs, we must also feed their minds. Unfortunately, the state of New York may unintentionally be undercutting its own efforts. It is difficult to stress the importance of supporting local farms on the one hand when the State Education Department is also encouraging students to read the book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” as part of the Common Core English Learning Arts Curriculum. The book is on a state reading list for teachers to choose to teach from and is critical of some modern farming practices.

The last thing I propose is censorship. However, I do propose balance. New York Farm Bureau has heard from many concerned parents that some teachers are not challenging some of the ideas proposed in the book or encouraging alternative opinions about agriculture. New York Farm Bureau’s Foundation for Agricultural Education has been called at times to help address this issue. This includes assisting farmers in speaking to a classroom full of children and providing important educational materials about the diverse farming community we are blessed to have in our state.

I have also written a letter to the Governor expressing my concerns and offering up suggestions. The letter read in part:

“New York’s curriculum could be adapted to include state-specific stories on agriculture. Incorporating balanced reading material that presents factual information on different aspects of agriculture would give students the ability to make an informed decision on all types of agriculture. Local Cornell Cooperative Extension Offices, New York Farm Bureau’s Education Foundation, and New York Agriculture in the Classroom are excellent programs that offer quality agricultural materials that educators can use to learn about agriculture in New York State.”

It is hard enough these days to get positive stories out to consumers and their children with so much chatter in social media blasting animal agriculture and different growing methods. I would like to think that chatter would stop once a child walks through the school door. If we want them to value the food they are eating, we should also teach them to value food that comes from farms of every size and production method.

But, as farmers, we must also take some responsibility as well by offering solutions. If you have the opportunity to speak to a classroom, do it. Make the first move and call your local district or a teacher. Be willing to host a farm tour. Be another voice that students can turn to for truthful information.

As much as I hope for a balanced meal for my children in school, I also want them to have a balanced education, especially when it comes to the livelihood of thousands of hard-working farm families in New York State.