Leah Clark says she wants to help grow her state’s Farm to School program.
Clark in mid-February retired after a 15-year tenure as the first manager of Idaho Preferred, a state Department of Agriculture marketing unit that promotes in-state food and agriculture products.
She immediately started a new ag-focused consultancy, Clark Marketing Solutions.
She recently helped an organization apply for a two-year, approximately $150,000 Farm to School grant. If USDA approves it — a decision could come next month — she will contract with the grantee, Leadership Idaho Agriculture, to help make sure the state gets the most out of its Farm to School program.
Farm to School encourages the use of more local foods in school lunches. State agriculture and education departments, the School Nutrition Association and the Agriculture in the Classroom chapter started a program about 10 years ago, tapping the University of Idaho to help with school gardens and other aspects.
Clark said Farm to School has been part of the job description of several people, none of whom has had time to “take it to the next level."
“With this grant, we will be able to have the resources and personnel to enhance the program,” she said.
Plans include helping school foodservice directors learn how to source and prepare local foods such as whole-grain barley — which shows promise for replacing rice in some meals — and peas and lentils. Clark aims to work with growers, marketers and commodity commissions.
For fruit growers, Farm to School has the potential to extend the season by getting more of the late-season crop into schools and by exploring how the state could bolster its limited processing infrastructure, she said.
Pilot projects in food processing and preservation, and working with established vegetable processors on retrofits so they can handle other crops, are among the possibilities.
“We would just like it to be easy for schools to use local products.” Clark said.
In her new business, she has been working with about seven food and agriculture businesses so far.
“Clients are different, and a lot of it is based on what the product is,” Clark said.
Much of the work will be short-term, like finding new buyers for fresh fruits and vegetables in-season or helping with distribution and packaging. Already, she has worked with a large Sunnyslope-area fruit grower on setting up international sales, and has helped other clients get products into grocery stores or onto online platforms.
Clark, 60, earned a master of agriculture degree in marketing and finance from Oklahoma State University. She worked as executive director at the Idaho Beef Council from 1988 until going to ISDA in 2004 to run the then-new Idaho Preferred program.
She has had an up-close view of the local-food movement, and trends such as more producers emphasizing marketing and branding.
“With a lot of producers, they recognize marketing is important but don’t always have the time, resources and expertise to do that,” Clark said. “That is what I am trying to provide for them.”
Sylar Jett now heads Idaho Preferred.