Students in Alabama’s public school system could start feasting on locally grown products during their lunch breaks, pending the adoption of new legislation that would benefit the state’s farmers.

The Farm-To-School Procurement Act, sponsored by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatom, would allow schools to purchase up to $100,000 worth of unprocessed, home-grown products from local farms for use in school cafeterias.

Certain handling and preservation techniques including refrigerating, freezing, packaging and pasteurization would be allowed.

The act is a joint effort between the state’s Department of Education (ALSDE) and Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) and includes all locally grown foods, from fruits and vegetables to meat, fish and dairy products.

Both departments would be responsible for implementing the act, identifying local farmers for the program and educating school food service directors about the new opportunity.

ADAI also will be responsible for investigating opportunities for farmers to supply products to commercial distributors, as well as housing a farm-to-school point person who will be responsible for promoting job creation possibilities.

Alabama Farmers Federation Horticulture; Greenhouse, Nursery & Sod and Bee & Honey Divisions Director Mac Higginbotham noted the organization’s support of the act, which exemplifies the Federation’s mission of promoting the economic, social and educational interests of Alabamians.

“The Alabama Farmers Federation worked very closely with the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture and Industries on the Farm-To-School Procurement Act,” said Higginbotham.

“We believe this is an excellent way schools can provide students with nutritious products that will support area families and farmers. It will also serve as an economic boost within our local communities, helping to keep those dollars circulating within our great state.”

Farmer and House Rep. David Sessions, R-Grand Bay, said that if passed, the act would cut out the difficulty individuals face when trying to market to school districts under federal contracts.

 “You have to go through so many layers of bureaucracy,” said Sessions.

“It’s very difficult. This (bill) is one small mechanism that would help cut out some of that red tape.”

While the financial benefits of the act are noteworthy, the health benefits of using locally grown products in schools could also reduce the state’s expanding waistline among children and adolescents.

“We always try to cut down on obesity, and I think fruits and vegetables are good for that,” Beech said.

Coinciding with the details of the Farm-To-School Procurement Act, ALSDE officials released a statement April 20 indicating that improved nutrition standards for meals will be implemented beginning with the 2012-13 school year, including the daily availability of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It is important to encourage students to try healthier food options,” said Child Nutrition Programs Director Perry Fulton. “The state’s education nutrition staff will continue to work on creative solutions to ensure healthy foods are prepared and served to students in an appealing manner.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 12.5 million children and adolescents ages 2-19 are obese — a number that has more than tripled since 1980. In Alabama, more than 36 percent of children are classified as overweight and obese.