From locally grown watermelon in Portland, Ore. to farm fresh squash in Bloomfield, Conn., school nutrition programs around the nation are increasingly turning to local farmers for fresh produce. Farm to school programs consist of a wide variety of programs that include school gardens, nutrition education, and the opportunity to purchase fresh, locally grown farm products for use in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. These types of programs have been in existence for over 10 years, but have recently seen rapid growth. Current estimates indicate over 950 farm to school programs operate in 35 states and this number continues to increase. The benefits of these programs include the availability of fresher produce for meal programs, increased opportunities for hands-on nutrition education in the classroom, and new markets with stable revenues for local farmers.
Research has highlighted the success and effectiveness of these programs. Studies have shown school lunch participation, by students and teachers, increases with farm to school program participation. Students on average eat significantly more servings of fruits and vegetables. Increased participation and consumption can result in enhanced revenues for school nutrition programs as well. Farm to school programs also offer additional educational opportunities such as farm tours, farmer visits to the classroom, school gardens, waste management and recycling programs.
While past federal legislation has encouraged and supported farm to school programs, such programs have become increasingly popular at the state legislative level. Language that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives version of the Farm Bill in July would allow school food authorities to include geographic preference as part of their bids to help encourage locally grown produce in schools. Several states are leading the trend by implementing programs that promote the sale of locally grown produce as well as other farm products in schools.
- Colorado implemented the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Pilot Program in 2006, which gives schools the opportunity to provide fruits and vegetables to students at no charge. The pilot will continue through the 2007-2008 school year. (SB 127)
- The Oklahoma Farm to School Program was created in 2006 with the goals of providing fresh and minimally processed farm commodities for use in school meals and snacks, developing relationships between schools and local farms and increasing new marketing opportunities for farmers. (HB 2655)
- The Vermont Farm to School program awards local grants to schools and school districts. The grants can be used to purchase Vermont based produce and dairy products, fund equipment and training to increase the use of local foods and provide professional development for teachers. (HB 91)
While there can be challenges to overcome when establishing a farm to school program, there also tools and resources available. Proper bid language, food safety concerns and an ample, consistent and quality product are all possible barriers to successful farm to school programs. To organize a farm to school program requires the support of farmers, schools, parents and community groups. The USDA provides a wealth of information on how to implement your own farm to school program including a handbook titled, “Eat Smart—Farm Fresh! A Guide to Buying and Serving Locally-Grown Produce in School Meals”. It may also be helpful to visit local farmers markets or contact community agencies that work with farmers, such as Farmers Market Associations, Farm Bureaus, and Cooperative Extension Services, in order to develop a relationship with your own local farmers. More resource information is available through Related Links.
School nutrition professionals are vital to the design, implementation and success of a farm to school program. Together, schools and farms can develop a relationship that benefits both students and communities.
Applying Geographic Preferences in Procurements for the Child Nutrition Programs
USDA Farm to School Initiative
Farm to School.org
School Nutrition Magazine Farm to School Article