If you have school-aged children, you want to know that your kids stay safe, make good choices, and learn new things while at school. Parents trust that the school administration can make sure these things are happening. However, do we ever stop to think about how healthy our children eat at school?

The school’s Child Nutrition Department staff is responsible for providing healthy meals for students and staff. The food that students are provided should help promote critical thinking, develop healthy eating habits, improve learning, and prevent diseases. The position of child nutrition director is vital in the school because they influence many decisions on what the school’s menu contains and what the child eats daily.

Josh Clements and Mary Lee Dennis from the NLRSD
Josh Clements and Mary Lee Dennis from the North Little Rock School District show off some of the locally sourced products they've introduced to their school lunch menu

The North Little Rock School District

The North Little Rock School District (NLRSD) nutrition staff strives to provide healthy and creative meals while complying with all local, state, and federal guidelines. When it comes time to plan for each upcoming school year, NLRSD Child Nutrition Director Mary Lee Dennis and Nutrition Coordinator Josh Clements put their heads together to come up with the best possible options for the fourteen schools in the district.

“We wanted to create a change in the school meals since we both started working for NLRSD three years ago. We set a gold standard for our program to highlight and incorporate a change. We determined that school meals should start with meat, so we decided to increase the quality of the meals and started focusing on meat.” Mary Lee Dennis stated. Mary Lee and Josh wanted to find sustainable partnerships with local meat sources.

School systems that desire healthy meals sourced locally to their students must consider budget and logistical limitations. Local growers also need to be mindful of these challenges.

This brought Mary Lee and Josh to the point where they started working with the Farm to School Grant Program. This program awards grants that support planning, developing, and implementing programs that connect students to their food sources through education, taste tests, school gardens, field trips, and local food sourcing for school meals. During this process, Mary Lee and Josh were given a list of farmers who could work with them on their healthy food initiative.

Carol and Sean Bansley
Carol and Sean Bansley from Bansley's Berkshire Ridge Farm provide high-quality pork to many amazing restaurants and now to the NLRSD

Bansley's Berkshire Ridge Farm

Communities Unlimited (CU) Healthy Foods Coordinator Brenda Williams was working with Bansley’s Berkshire Ridge Farm, a small family farm in the Ozark Mountains on the west side of Harrison, Arkansas. Sean and Carol Bansley had provided their pork products to restaurants in the region with great success for several years.

The Bansley Farm has wide-open green pastures, which house Berkshire pigs. Sean and Carol Bansley own the farm and believe in never caging or crating their pigs. “The pigs are free to rest underneath the oak and hickory trees; they are never given any growth hormones, steroids, or routine antibiotics. They are fed vegetarian feed with all the needed vitamins and minerals, which results in healthy pork being sold.” Carol explained. “We believe that all animals should be able to live in a group environment with plenty of exercise and have a happy and stress-free life.” The Bansleys shared.

They have pork on menus in over twenty-five restaurants and health food stores in Arkansas including in Bentonville, Rogers, Fayetteville, Eureka Springs, Harrison, and Branson, MO. They had considered partnering with a school district to offer high-quality meats to school lunch programs. The Bansley’s knew they had good partnerships with restaurants but did not know how to connect with local schools that could benefit from their product.

How The Partnership Formed

The Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Program (LFPA) was established by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to strengthen statewide food systems over two years and the funds buy food from local growers/producers to provide for their communities. The Local Food for Schools Cooperative Agreement Program (LFS) program strengthens the food system for schools by helping build a fair, competitive, and resilient local food chain and expanding local and regional markets with an emphasis on purchasing from producers and processors. The LFPA Catalog is used to introduce grower’s products to potential customers.

Brenda Williams works with healthy foods initiative programs and contacted Sean and Carol Bansley to introduce them to the program and catalog. The Bansley’s contacted the LFPA program to get their farm listed in the catalog.

The NLRSD used the catalog to search for a farmer they could work with to purchase more locally sourced products. The NLRSD found Bansley’s Berkshire Ridge Farms in the catalog and reached out to inquire about purchasing their pork products for the NLRSD lunch program.

Brenda Williams

“When I received a call from Bansley’s Berkshire Ridge Farm, I was extremely excited that the NLRSD had placed orders to incorporate local foods in their school lunch program. This is an amazing opportunity to encourage locally produced products in schools and support small-scale producers”

— Brenda Williams, Healthy Foods Coordinator

After signing a contract with Bansley’s Berkshire Ridge Farm, the NLRSD receives products a few times a week and has been able to plan and schedule menus throughout the year. The NLRSD is far from finished in finding locally sourced products for its menu and continues looking for opportunities that make sense for both parties.

“We’re learning as we go and figuring out what works best for us and the farmers. There is much effort from both ends.” Mary Lee Dennis said.

The collaborative relationship that the NLRSD Child Nutrition Staff, Bansley’s Berkshire Ridge Farm, and Brenda Williams have all developed will go a long way in helping with the goal of healthier food choices in the NLRSD.