October 22, 2015
Looking at their school lunch trays, kids in northeast Iowa can now make a unique observation: “my dad grew that!” In a state where agriculture is one of its biggest economic drivers, “my dad grew that” was something kids couldn’t say about their school lunches until very recently: up to a few years ago, Iowa-grown products were nearly absent from northeast Iowa schools.
When the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative was established in 2007, one of their goals was to change that statistic. In seven short years, Food and Fitness has increased NE Iowa schools’ annual local food purchases to $72,000, and local sales continue to grow exponentially: purchases have more than doubled just in the last two years.
The recent uptick in local food sales was achieved with the help of a USDA Farm to School grant, which has allowed Food and Fitness to expand farm to school programing and increase the capacity of the Iowa Food Hub. The food hub helps pre-process food for school cafeterias – for example, cubing and freezing squash – and coordinates purchases from a central location, making it easier for farmers to distribute to multiple schools. Bob Howard, who works with Country View Dairy, an IA family farm-based dairy, underscores the benefits of the food hub, which he says “has helped us deliver to schools and find markets we wouldn’t have been able to find on our own.”
More Support for Farm to School Still Needed
In addition to Food and Fitness in Iowa, 220 other projects have received USDA Farm to School grant funding across the country. However, during the program’s first three years, demand was five times greater than available funding. This illustrates exactly why Congress must increase support for farm to school in the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization (CNR), in addition to improving the program’s reach and flexibility. Immediate action is necessary to ensure that schools, students, and farmers aren’t left stranded without the critical resources they need.
Congress already dropped the ball and allowed the 2010 CNR (known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) to expire on September 30, and while a Continuing Resolution (CR) temporarily extended last year’s funding, this extension only keeps child nutrition programs alive and the government funded until December 11.
We know that there is a lot on Congress’s to-do list, as legislators scramble to lift the debt ceiling, elect a new House speaker, and fund the government in the next few months. But on top of all that, since this year’s funding extension also acts as a de factor extension of CNR programs, it puts child nutrition and farm to school into the mix of the upcoming year-end-mega-negotiations.
To delay CNR any longer, especially into a presidential election year, would be reckless and extremely challenging for the schools, local economies, and farmers counting on the expansion of farm to school activities in their communities.
The co-sponsors of the Farm to School Act of 2015 continue to recognize the widespread benefits of farm to school. Co-sponsor Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) has highlighted the economic benefits of farm to school for rural communities.
“The Farm to School Act of 2015 improves this important initiative to eliminate unnecessary barriers and provide opportunities for local communities to educate youth about agriculture while building more viable economies. The increased flexibility and reduced regulatory burdens in this bill can bring far-reaching economic benefits, especially in rural areas.”
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), another champion who introduced the bill in the House, has also seen the strong benefits of farm to school in Nebraska and points to the pressing need for a new CNR that includes increased support for farm to school.
“The Farm to School program has been a tremendous success. The Farm to School Act builds on this success. It connects local farmers to their communities, establishes and expands local economies, and gives schoolchildren access to regional nutritious food. The upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is a critical opportunity to make these important changes.”
A Win for Communities
As the co-sponsors of the Farm to School Act point out, farm to school has benefits beyond the initial connection between farmers and schools, too. Back in Iowa, Iowa Food Hub has also helped expand local food access in small towns. “In our rural communities the school is a hub for activities,” says Teresa Wiemerslage, Regional Food Systems Coordinator at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “Making weekly deliveries to schools opens up opportunities for delivering products…even in these small towns that we otherwise wouldn’t have the capacity to reach.”
These broader community benefits are some of the greatest strengths of many farm to school programs, and according to Emily Neal, School Outreach Coordinator for Food and Fitness, focusing on the community has been key to their success. “We recognize that farm to school is hitched to something much greater than getting kids local food on their plates in the cafeteria. We recognize that farm to school is an engagement tool to help build resilient communities and keep kids healthy.”
The Time to Act is Now
To that end, it is critical that Congress acts soon to reauthorize CNR with stronger support for farm to school. We need your help! NSAC and the National Farm to School Network are partnering today on a Big Day of Action for Farm to School – join us in taking action today to ensure more communities are able to have farm to school success like northeast Iowa!
Categories: Local & Regional Food Systems