Local farm, LouAllen Farms, recently joined the Farm Food Collaborative with the Food Bank of North America and began delivering fresh produce to all the public schools in Lawrence County.
Larry and Bonita LouAllen, co-owners of LouAllen Farms, made their first delivery to county schools about two weeks ago. The pair delivered fresh-picked strawberries to each of the schools within the Lawrence County school district.
“We had talked about something like this for a couple of years with Michelle Chenault, the county’s school dietician,” Larry LouAllen said. “They did a trade show thing out in Cullman. We went and set up and connected with the Food Bank Group, and from there, we just started doing it.”
Farm Food Collaborative Co-managers Natalie Bishnoi and Carey Martin-Lane said the Farm Food Collaborative is North Alabama’s first local food hub, which began operating out of the Food Bank of North Alabama in September of 2104.
“We have other districts in northern Alabama that have been participating, but LouAllen’s is our first from Lawrence County,” Bishnoi said. “We work with farmers across America. This is a win-win-win for students, because they receive local produce, for farmers, because they received recognition and are provided with another platform to sell their produce, and for the local economy.”
Martin-Lane said the FFC’s objective is to support thriving family farms, promote a strong economy for local communities in their districts, and to encourage healthier eating habits.
“To that end, we help farmers obtain food safety certifications and coordinate sales and delivery logistics so farms throughout North and Central Alabama can sell to school districts, early care and education (ECE) sites, grocery stores, and restaurants,” she said. “This economic impact is multiplied more than twice over as local food dollars are re-circulated throughout the community and farm jobs are created and retained. Everyone from children in the school lunch line to families shopping at the grocery store have greater access to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables.”
Bishnoi said the FFC also provides flyers that help promote the local delivering farmers’ business within the schools.
“Children visiting their school lunchroom can see the poster and identify the farmer that brought them fresh fruits and vegetables that week,” she said. “We want to help the kids make that connection, which might also spark some interest in farming.”
Child Nutrition Coordinator Michelle Chenault said about $13,000 to $15,000 is spent on fresh produce for county public schools each month. She said this number varies depending on what fresh foods are available from participating suppliers.
“I think local farmers are trying to plug into that, you know. To get in on some of that business rather than having produce shipped in from some other state,” LouAllen said.
He added that for the first few deliveries, his farm has only provided strawberries to Lawrence County schools. He said he has discussed delivering watermelons, cantaloupes and other type melons to the schools in the fall.
“I want to expand it as much as we can. It might be that fresh field peas will eventually be an option,” he said.
Bishnoi said the seasons and weather conditions will have an impact on what children see offered to them from local farmers each school term.
“I know they’ve had a rough year for strawberries with so much rain,” she said. “Strawberries need lots of sunny days to thrive. The LouAllens have still been able to deliver the berries twice this year. We hope to get one more in this week before summer.”
“We’re tickled to death to be able to purchase the fresh fruit from LouAllen’s Farms. They’ve been awesome to work with,” Chenault said. “We want to support our local people.”
Chenault said the FCC handles the paperwork for the school concerning billing and a checklist of items that have to be covered before the school can purchase unprocessed agricultural produce from a facility.
The Farm to School Alabama Legislation Act has made all this possible, Chenault said.
Other farmers are welcome to look into the program too. Chenault said interested suppliers should contact the FFC to see if they qualify for the program.
“This takes a lot of work. We’re so grateful to the LouAllens and any farmer that attempts this because it involves extra deliveries,” Chenault said. “There are several factors involved like produce yields—we couldn’t send certain produce items to just Mt. Hope, for example. There has to be enough for all the county schools. Food safety handling and transportation are also big checklist items.”
Bishnoi said the FFC works with eight districts in North Alabama, now including Lawrence County.
“We started in Madison and Cullman, and we plan to keep expanding,” she said.
For more information about the Farm Food Collaborative, call 256-656-7643 or visit https://www.foodbanknorthal.org/programs/ffc/.