USDA Farm to School Census Shows Schools’ Growing Interest in Serving Up Local
February 3, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
The USDA’s recent Farm to School census showed that over half of America’s schools plan on exploring local foods and over 40,000 schools already are. By offering planning, implementation and support grants across the country, the USDA Farm to School program is getting local food on school cafeteria plates while creating lifelong customers for local farmers.
“The vast majority of children who eat school meals are doing so on the free and reduced price meal program,” says Deborah Kane, National Director of the USDA’s Farm to School Program.
“You always hear that the Achilles Heel of the sustainable ag movement is the degree to which it’s for the elite, and nothing could be further from the truth when you talk about Farm to School, because those local products are going to children that may not otherwise consume them at home.”
To create partnerships and understand the process of implementing a Farm to School program, a school district can apply for a planning grant to start the process, garner advice and build a team as well as a game plan.
“The school district that receives a planning grant works with us over the course of a year on a step-by-step fashion to build a robust and sustainable Farm to School program,” says Kane.
Implementation grants are offered through the Farm to School program to school districts that already use local products but wish to extend their programming. Grants are used to fund healthy food-related projects such as school districts pooling their purchasing power to engage local producers, student-grown salad bars, school gardens, local food breakfast programs, healthy food clubs and food based lessons and activities.
A third grant offers support services to state departments of education or other qualifying institutions, including funding, to help schools under their management implement Farm to School projects. All grants range in size from $20,000 to $100,000 with up to $5 million in grants offered annually.
According to Kane, for the Farm to School program to work, there has to be a commitment to work together across the community.
“We’ve seen examples of schools bringing local products into the cafeteria, say… to promote cauliflower. They partner with the local grocery store; store runs a special and sends coupons in the newspaper,” says Kane. “You see physicians coming into the school and talking about healthy eating habits, athletes reminding them to make good choices in the cafeteria. There’s no limit to the people who can engage. It’s dynamic and fun and hands-on.”
Some regions of the country are hesitant to implement a federal program into regionally autonomous school districts. Concerns include difference in costs, the applicability of free and reduced lunches and the assumed complexity of working with a federal program.
“I definitely think any school across the country is capable of working with local farmers; capable of teaching children where their food comes from. They have an opportunity every single day when they interact with kids in the cafeteria,” says Kane. “One of the things that we say to schools that are just getting started is just put one local product on the menu and promote it. Let the students and the parents know that you’ve got a local product. Let them know which farmer it came from, celebrate your success and then add another. Take the next step. It’s actually a lot easier than it seems.”
Kane points out that local food supports the local community.
“For every dollar you spend on local food, another $2.85 is circulated throughout the local economy,” she says. “That’s a point I make to school food services directors; there is a very limited food budget in the school meal program and why in the world wouldn’t you want to maximize its positive benefits in your community? That’s just a no brainer to me.”
The USDA’s Geographic Preference clause means that school districts using federal funds for the free and reduced lunch program can ask for local suppliers for their cafeterias.
“When we’re talking about selling local sustainable food to schools, we’re talking about extremely large institutions that impact a significant percentage of our population and you’re catching kids early, you’re creating lifelong healthy eating behaviors and you’re creating a life-long connection to agriculture,” says Kane.
School districts interested in learning more about the Farm to School program (or producers who are struggling to connect with their local school district) can contact one of the six regional Farm to School coordinators. More information on the Farm to School Program can be found on the USDA’s website here.