April 7, 2014
Last week, the Farm to School Program of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) published Procuring Local Food for Child Nutrition Programs, a guide to help K-12 schools operating one or more Child Nutrition Programs with identifying and procuring locally grown and produced food for use at school cafeterias.
Using examples from school districts, State agencies, and farm to school organizations around the country, this multi-part guide provides information on:
Child Nutrition Programs include the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Special Milk Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and Summer Food Service Program. The guide notes that the term “school” refers to any entity purchasing food for use in school meal programs, such as State agencies, school food authorities, school districts, procurement agents, food service management companies, and purchasing coops.
Based in part on A School’s Guide to Purchasing Washington-Grown Food, which was developed by the Washington State Department of Agriculture, NSAC member Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network, and the Washington Environmental Council in September 2012, the new FNS guide represents another step by the USDA Farm to School Program to make information on starting and operating farm to school programs more comprehensive and accessible.
The guide complements the many online resources available from the USDA Farm to School Program, including fact sheets, materials from agencies, organizations, and universities, and the ongoing biweekly webinar series on local food procurement. Feedback from the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI), NSAC member the National Farm to School Network, and various School nutrition directors, State agencies, school districts, and farm to school coordinators also helped to shape the guide.
The procurement of local foods for school meals is part of the larger and increasingly popular farm to school activities that connect schools “with local producers and teach kids where their food comes from.” According to the USDA Farm to School Program, “farm to school” includes local food procurement, hands-on learning activities such as school gardening, farm visits, and culinary classes, and the integration of food-related education into the regular, standards-based classroom curriculum.
Farm to School Grant Program — USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program, which is currently accepting applications for Planning, Implementation, and Support services through April 30, 2014, supports a range of farm to school activities. Establishing and winning mandatory funding for the grant program was a major NSAC campaign during the reauthorization of child nutrition programs in 2010. It will again be an NSAC priority for the upcoming 2015 reauthorization legislation.
Farm Bill Pilot Programs and Geographic Preference — The 2014 Farm Bill includes a provision for a new farm to school pilot for up to eight states that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to schools and allows a geographic preference in procurement. NSAC included support for farm to school pilots as part of its recent farm bill campaign. While the final outcome on the pilot programs was not exactly what we wanted, we are now working to make them as successful as possible.
As USDA works out the details of which states will be able to carry out farm to school pilots and what the pilots will be allowed to do, schools should be granted flexibility and receive assistance in the options available to carry out geographic preference. As one of several components of a school district’s procurement evaluation, geographic preference for local and regional food, according to the guide, is not prescribed in a particular way in federal regulations. Schools, therefore, are allowed freedom in the way that geographic preference can be applied and how much preference can be given to local products.
Additionally, specifications may be written in such as way as to make local producers more likely to win the contract: such as specifying that foods are harvested within 24 to 48 hours of delivery or that particular varieties or species local to a region are used.
NSAC will continue to monitor the new farm to school pilot and report on the details of the program once available. With the strides that USDA has made in its successful Farm to School grant program and the tremendous growth of farm to school programs around the nation, we look forward to hearing about whether or not the additional information and procurement ideas in the new guide are sufficient to assist school districts in fostering local procurement and farm to school programs. Should additional legislative or regulatory clarity prove necessary, we will work in support of such improvements.