EVERY year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awards up to $5 million in grants to help schools connect with local producers and teach kids where their food comes from.
These funds support activities ranging from training, planning and developing partnerships to purchasing equipment, planting school gardens and organizing field trips. Grantees include schools and districts (large and small, rural and urban), Indian tribal organizations, producers and producer groups, nonprofit entities and state and local agencies.
According to USDA's first-ever "Farm to School Census," in the 2011-12 school year, schools participating in farm-to-school activities purchased and served more than $350 million in local food, with more than half of participating schools planning to purchase even more local foods in future school years.
USDA estimates that as of the 2012-13 school year, 3,812 districts operating approximately 38,629 schools with 21 million students in attendance are buying local products and teaching children where their food comes from.
"An investment in the health of America's students through farm-to-school activities is also an investment in the health of local economies," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "We know that when students have experiences such as tending a school garden or visiting a farm, they'll be more likely to make healthy choices in the cafeteria."
Forty-three percent of public school districts surveyed across the country reported having an existing farm-to-school program in place, with another 13% of school districts committed to launching a farm-to-school program in the near future.
Interest in local products spans the school meal tray, with fruits, vegetables and milk topping the list of local products currently offered in schools across the country, while census respondents indicated an interest in local plant-based proteins, grains and flour and meat and poultry in the future, USDA reported.
Vilsack added that through these efforts, schools continue to enhance the health of the school food environment, meet the new meal standards implemented last school year and demonstrate the role local food can play in school meals.
The census found that 13% of the 13,000 schools that responded to the survey reported that they have edible gardens on site.
In addition to buying local products and building school gardens, school districts are promoting locally produced foods at school in general (17%), holding taste tests/demos of locally produced foods (16%) and conducting student field trips to farms (13%).
Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, explained in a blog post that farm-to-school programs support the work of parents, teachers, school nutrition professionals and local communities as they raise a healthier next generation of Americans.
"Research shows that children in schools with farm-to-school programs eat more fruits and vegetables and are more willing to try and eat the new healthy foods served in school breakfasts, lunches and snacks — positive steps forward in the fight against childhood obesity," he wrote.
Each state and school district has stories to tell of the increased synergies through working together, and more will be done in 2014.
For example, this year, Contoocook Valley School District in New Hampshire purchased apples from a local orchard that were too small to sell at the farm stand but were a perfect size for the elementary school students.
Also, Hopkins Public Schools in Minnesota processed local Roma tomatoes at its summer feeding sites for later use in the school meal program to make marinara sauce.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 invested $40 million in the new farm-to-school program, and USDA awarded the new grants for 2014 in mid-November. USDA received 345 proposals requesting a total of nearly $27 million and was able to award a total of $5.2 million for 71 proposals.
The selected projects will serve more than 13,000 schools and 2.8 million students, nearly 45% of whom live in rural communities.
In eastern Nebraska, the Center for Rural Affairs will help develop farm-to-school programs, working with 10 pilot schools and holding two regional farm-to-school summits as well as training sessions for farmers and school foodservice personnel.
In Montana, the National Center for Appropriate Technology will work with three school districts in central Montana on model farm-to-school projects that will eventually be transferred to the rest of the state. Collaborators include Montana State Extension to work with farmers, Montana Team Nutrition to work with foodservice professionals and FoodCorps to work on the nutrition education and garden-based curriculum.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture received a grant to operate a pilot project in eight school districts on an agricultural education program and a training workshop in good agricultural practices, with the goal that each school district serves a minimum of two locally produced food items per month in the cafeteria.
A full list of awardees is posted at www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/FY_2014_Grant_Award_Summaries.pdf.
Boosting local economies
Regional offerings (and, therefore, economic opportunities for local food producers) in school meals can include everything from fresh fruit and vegetable servings to wheat in the pizza crust, beans in the chili, rice in the stir-fry, turkey in the sandwiches and cheese in the quesadillas.
"We also know that when schools invest their food dollars in their local communities, all of agriculture benefits, including local farmers, ranchers, fishermen, food processors and manufacturers," Vilsack noted.
Concannon said he sees the farm-to-school program as an investment not only in the health of America's students but in the health of local economies.
Studies show that the economic multiplier effect of buying from local businesses can be between two and three times higher than from non-local businesses, and farmers, ranchers and small businesses who participate in farm-to-school programs are reaping the rewards.
USDA coordinates the work under the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which has helped increase the number of farmers markets to more than 8,100 nationwide — 67% growth since 2008.
USDA has invested in local food infrastructure ranging from cold storage facilities to processing plants to food hubs that aggregate products from many farms and help smaller producers reach larger buyers. As a result, there are more than 200 food hubs in operation nationwide today, USDA reported.
USDA said it is accepting additional submissions to its "Farm to School Census" through Nov. 30.