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Farm to School Programs Grow Interest in Local Food and Healthy Eating

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An increasing number of U.S. school districts are participating in Farm to School programs, reflecting the growing popularity of local foods.

Farm to School participants implement healthy, nutritious school meals incorporating local food products and school gardens as well as lessons in health, nutrition, food and agriculture. Activities can include school gardens, student field trips to farms, farmer visits to schools, farm to school concepts integrated into school curriculum and cafeteria food coaches encouraging kids to eat healthy and local foods.

The program began in the late 1990s with a few pilot projects in two states. The National Farm to School Network reported recently that 3,812 school districts serving nearly 21 million students in all 50 states had Farm to School programs, compared to 400 school districts in 22 states just nine years ago. 

Students at a Farm to School program in the Upper Valley Farm to School Network in Vermont. Photo credit: uvfts.org

The numbers are based on a recent census of Farm to School activities by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), its first ever. The USDA has a searchable database where you can find programs in your state or search by school district.

The strongest showing of school district participation in Farm to School activities was found on the east coast—in particular, the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. Nine states—Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina and Hawaii—reported having more than 75 percent of school district respondents engaged in Farm to School activities. Twenty-two states, as well as the District of Columbia, reported having more than 50 percent of its school districts participating in Farm to School activities. 

As a result of an National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition (NSAC) campaign, the USDA received $40 million in mandatory funding ($5 million a year for eight years) through the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 to provide grants to help schools develop or improve existing Farm to School activities. In addition to providing grants, the USDA Farm to School program also supports participating school districts with research, training and technical assistance.

The increase in Farm to School programs has multiple benefits, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a recent press release. "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. 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," he said.

School district investment in local food products during the 2011-2012 school year was about $354.6 million out of the estimated $2.5 billion that was spent on school food.

"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," said Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

The increased availability of local and healthy foods and the educational experiences offered by Farm to School programs can have lasting impacts on children’s health—improving eating habits and leading to “positive steps forward in the fight against childhood obesity,” program leaders said.

As the House and Senate farm bill conferees finalize a new five-year farm bill, two farm to school issues remain under discussion. The House farm bill contains two farm to school pilot programs—one for the USDA Foods program and one for the Department of Defense “Fresh” program. Both would promote experimentation and evaluation of innovative approaches to local food procurement for school meals.

NSAC strongly supports both sets of pilot projects and is encouraging the farm bill conference to adopt both of those House-passed provisions in the final bill.

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