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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.

Civil Eats

By Michele Simon

Given all the defeats and set-backs this year due to powerful food industry lobbying, the good food movement should by now be collectively shouting—I am mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.

If you feel that way, I have two words of advice—get political.

I don’t mean to ignore the very real successes—increases in farmers markets, innovative and inspiring programs such as Food Corps, and an increasingly diverse food justice movement, just to name a few. But lately, at least when it comes to kids' and junk food, we’ve been getting our butts kicked.

And it’s not just because corporations have more money to lobby—of course they do. It’s that too often, we’re not even in the game. Or, we tend to give up too easily. While I know many food justice advocates who understand this is a political fight over control of the food system, sadly I cannot say the same thing about some of my public health colleagues. Too many nonprofits, foundations and professionals are playing it safe, afraid to take on the harder fights.

A politician from Maine I interviewed for my book was complaining to me about how food industry lobbyists were in his state capital every single day, while public health sent the occasional volunteer. His sage advice to us advocates—“You may be out-gunned, but you have to bring a gun.”

Moreover, many groups have shown that you don’t always even need a bigger gun. The small but impressive organization, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, proved that this summer when it won an important victory against Scholastic regarding its corporate-sponsored materials. How did they do it? A combination of smart campaigning and effective media. Not by playing nice.

Many public health folks I know are more comfortable with research and data than politics and lobbying. But if we are to make real progress, that has to change. Back in May, after a series of defeats, my colleague Nancy Huehnergarth wrote a great call-to-action. She noted how public health advocates and its funders are “very genteel” and that when industry lobbying beats us back, advocates just want more science, believing that the new data “will finally convince policymakers and the public to take action.” But it doesn’t work that way, as she explains:

The reality is that when going up against deep-pocketed, no-holds barred opponents like Big Food, Big Beverage and Big Agriculture, public health’s focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by money and messaging. If public health advocates don’t start rolling up their sleeves and using some of the same tactics used by industry, progress in this fight to create a safe, healthy, sustainable food system is going to move very slowly.

Now for some good news. We are already seeing positive signs that indeed, the food movement is getting more political. Recent defeats are helping to mobilize people even more, as folks realize the food industry is not playing nice, so we can’t either. Here then, are just a few signs of hope for 2012:

1) The growing political movement opposing genetically-engineered foods, which includes a huge Just Label It campaign with an impressive list of supporters. Stay tuned also for the 2012 ballot initiative in California to label GMOs.

2) Powerful nonprofit organizations (who don’t shy away from politics) getting involved for the first time in nutrition policy. For example, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) recent report on sugary cereals called out the utter failure of Big Food’s voluntary nutrition guidelines on marketing to children. Given EWG’s one million-plus supporters, I can’t wait to see where they go with this issue in 2012.

3) Increasing coverage in mainstream media that food industry marketing (and not just personal responsibility) bears much of the blame for the nation’s public health crisis. Examples include a front page story in a recent Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and Mark Bittman’s weekly Opinionator column in the New York Times, which is consistently smart and hard-hitting.

4) Speaking of media, as traditional investigative journalism outlets have become more scarce, a new breed of reporters may be born from an innovative project just launched in November—Food and Environmental Reporting Network. Its mission is to “produce investigative journalism on the subjects of food, agriculture, and environmental health in partnership with local and national media outlets.” Judging from its first in-depth report on dairy CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) in New Mexico, I am looking forward to more in 2012.

5) Finally, the Occupy movement, while still very young, has already inspired a number of food politics offshoots. As I wrote after Food Day, several others have penned calls to action showing the deep connections between corporate control of the food supply and economic injustice. (If you read just one, Tom Philpott’s Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street should convince you.) Also, the amazing grassroots organization Food Democracy Now (based in Iowa) recently organized an “Occupy Wall Street Farmers’ March” to bring the message that family farmers are also the 99 percent. (Read organizer Dave Murphy’s moving account of the successful event and watch the videos of the passionate speakers.)

There are many other amazing groups, farmers and eaters organizing all over the country (and the world) to take back our food supply from corporate profiteers. We’ve got plenty of challenges ahead, with the farm bill up for renewal and more school food nutrition standards to fight for, just for starters. I am hopeful that next year we will see the food movement get even more political. I just hope I can also say, by the end of 2012, that it was the year more of my public health colleagues joined in.

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