When Rodney Taylor was first approached back in the mid-1990s by a parent wanting more fresh, locally grown produce served in a school district, he initially dismissed it.

After all, the Santa Monica/Malibu school district for which Taylor was director of nutritional services, already had salad bars in the schools. He thought that was progressive enough. But the parent’s daughter complained she wouldn’t go near the salad bar at her school because the lettuce was brown, carrots were turning white and, well, the colors were just dull.

Taylor, a bit reluctantly, decided to implement a two-week pilot program with one grower and one preschool in his district.

“During that two weeks, I sat with the kids, ate and talked,” Taylor said. “I knew then that this was something I was going to institutionalize.”

Those were the humble beginnings of what today is the National Farm to School Network, a program that brings food — a vast majority of which is fresh produce — from local farms to school children nationwide. What started as a few pilot programs in California and Florida in 1996-97 grew to about 400 by 2004 and 1,000 by 2007.

In 2009, there were more than 2,000 Farm to School programs in the U.S.

According to the National Farm to School Network Web site, there are 42 states with operational programs, though even that figure might be low, if you ask someone who works closely with the program.

“We’re probably more at 48, 49,” said Debra Eschmeyer, outreach and marketing director for the Center for Food & Justice at Occidental College in Los Angeles, which administrates the program along with the Community Food Security Coalition, Portland, Ore. “The last data collection was in 2007. We’re expecting 50 states and many more programs by the end of 2010. We’ve received over 1,000 queries in the last six months.”

According to the Web site, there are an estimated 2,051 Farm to School programs, involving 8,943 schools in 2,065 districts. There are eight regional lead agencies located throughout the U.S. which help operate the programs.

The network is funded by the Kellogg Foundation.

Taylor eventually moved to the Riverside (Calif.) school district and wasted no time implementing a pilot program there in 2005. Today, 29 of 31 elementary schools in Riverside have salad bars featuring locally grown produce.

“It’s going very well,” Taylor said. “We served 1.3 million salad bar meals from 2005-09. We created a market for small farmers and paid them $400,000 over that time. We not only helped our local economy, but changed the perception of school foodservice and its role in modifying kids’ eating behavior.”

Across the country, in Burlington, Vt., school district foodservice director Doug Davis has put an emphasis on the educational side of Farm to School, setting up programs where students personally help with the harvest and processing of local produce.

Davis said he started with one school and one grower in 2003 and bought about $300 of product. This year, he said he spent more than $50,000 with 21 growers, serving 17 schools.

“What’s made our program more successful is getting kids involved,” Davis said. “If you just take a locally grown, organic tomato and stick it in a bag, kids might eat them, but they won’t get it.”

Farm to School has had a significant economic effect for a lot of local growers, big and small, according to Eric Hahn, president of Locavore Food Distributors, Detroit, which sells locally grown produce to more than 600 schools from his hometown to Chicago.

“School districts are buying semi truckloads at a time, which brings a big financial benefit to a lot of growers,” Hahn said. “When you have schools like the Chicago public schools, a district of that magnitude that has that kind of buying power, you’re creating a new link in the chain that hadn’t been provided.”

Hahn said his company has gone from selling about 70,000 of local product to schools in 2007 to up to 10 times that this year.

The program has caught the attention of some prominent national produce associations, such as the United Fresh Produce Association. Especially interested is Lorelei DiSogra, who as United Fresh’s vice president of nutrition and health has made one of her primary objectives to get fresh produce into schools.

“We have mutual goals,” DiSogra said. “I try to support their efforts, because it’s the same thing we’re trying to do.”

A concern, DiSogra said, is that many growing regions throughout the U.S. have short growing seasons because of climate, which might limit supply during portions of the school year.

“When local is available, of course, we support that,” she said. “But we want produce supplied in schools every month of the year.”

The Farm to School Network deals with that by processing, packaging and storing product after its harvested, said Marion Kalb, program director for the Community Food Security Coalition.

“Everything is fresh-cut and processed,” said GlyenHolmes, executive director for the New North Florida Cooperative, which works with Farm to School programs throughout the Florida panhandle, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas, including 250,000 schoolchildren in Broward County, Fla. “Grow, chop, bag and get it to the schools.”

Bob Bloomer, regional vice president of Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, a foodservice company that serves 485 public schools and 305,000 students in Chicago, said his company recently entered into an agreement with Testa Produce Co. and Harvest Foods to process and freeze produce so that local is available to the area year-round.

There have been roadblocks along the way, and some hurdles remain. Kalb said getting proper kitchen equipment has been a problem, but federal funding has helped. Other issues the program is fighting include lack of processing centers and distribution. But no one argues the program has come a long way and is poised to grow further and more quickly from here on out.

“We’re just reaching a point now where we can make an economic impact,” said Holmes, who’s worked with the program from the start in the late ‘90s. “I wouldn’t measure it now from a financial end, but as a point of true potential. In two to five years, we can measure economic impact.

“We’re at a critical stage now. It can go good, or go bad.”