The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced more than $4.5 million in grants for 68 projects, spanning 37 states and the District of Columbia, to connect school cafeterias with local agricultural producers.
The first-ever USDA Farm to School grants will help schools respond to the growing demand for locally sourced foods and increase market opportunities for producers and food businesses, including food processors, manufacturers, distributors. Grants will also be used to support agriculture and nutrition education efforts such as school gardens, field trips to local farms, and cooking classes. The grants will serve more than 3,200 schools and 1.75 million students, nearly half of whom live in rural communities.
The latest awards – 32 planning and 36 implementation grants – will reach over 3,200 schools serving 1.75 million American schoolchildren. USDA received 365 applications – 230 for implementation grants and 135 for planning grants – but is only able to fund a total of 18.6% of proposed projects, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) reported.
NSAC is calling on Congress to further farm to school programming through the farm bill.
Included in the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, NSAC proposes flexibility in commodity programs that would enable more local food procurement in school meal programs.
While the Senate-passed bill includes a more general farm to school pilot program, the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill specifically authorizes schools with low annual commodity entitlement values to start making their own food purchases, provided USDA determines this would yield reduced administrative costs. Additionally, the House bill would create demonstration projects in at least 10 schools to test alternatives to USDA food distribution through farm to school procurement models.
“By increasing purchases of local farm products, schools provide lucrative market opportunities for farmers and ranchers, expand access to fresh foods for schoolchildren, and stimulate community economic development,” explained Helen Dombalis, NSAC policy associate. “The Farm to School Grants are a crucial step, and must be combined with legislation in the farm bill, in order to fully realize the economic potential of farm to school programs."