September 14, 2015
On Friday, September 11, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the release of a new report on the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, highlighting the successes of the program over its three year history. Authored by the USDA Farm to School Team, with assistance from PEER Associates and the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont, the report provides an in-depth look at grantmaking activities between fiscal years 2013 and 2015.
The Farm to School Grant Program was first launched in 2012 by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) following a provision of funding from the 2010 Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (commonly known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act or HHFKA). The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition worked with partners and champions in Congress to authorize and fund the program.
Since 2013, the USDA Farm to School Grant Program has provided up to $5 million in grants each year on a competitive basis to schools, nonprofits, state and local agencies, agricultural producers, and Indian tribal organizations to help bring local or regionally produced foods into school cafeterias, provide students with hands-on learning opportunities such as school gardening and farm visits, and integrate food-related education in the classroom. The program has been shown to not only help improve child health and education, but also marketing opportunities for farmers and local economic development.
According to the report, the Farm to School Grant Program has funded 221 farm to school projects in 49 States, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These projects have benefited 12,300 schools and an estimated 6.9 million students, helping them to eat more nutritious foods, building up healthy eating habits, and increasing awareness about agriculture and nutrition.
The program has benefited students in both rural and urban areas of the country, with 40 percent of the schools or districts impacted by the program considered rural and 56 percent considered urban. Additionally, the grant program prioritizes applicants that serve a high percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, with the majority of grant awards (143 grants or 78 percent) going to support schools or school districts with free or reduced-price meal eligibility rates greater than 50 percent.
Geographically, the distribution of awards across the country in the seven FNS regions has been fairly balanced, with no region holding more than 20 percent of grantees. Topping the list of regions receiving awards were the Western, Southeastern, and Midwestern regions. While organizations in the Southwest region received the fewest awards (21 grants), they had the highest percentage of applications funded of all seven regions.
The report highlights the flexibility of the Farm to School Grant Program, which funds a variety of applicant types and activities. In the most recent call for applications, the program provided for four grant categories:
The report goes on to analyze the types of awards provided, along with the types of activities (ranging from local food procurement training to curriculum development) funded, and the types of grant recipients (in addition to schools and school districts).
The report also stresses the extremely high demand for the program. Out of 1067 applications and a total of $78.4 million in grant funding requested, only $15.1 million was awarded to 221 grantees – meaning only about 20 percent of total applications have been funded.
Despite the program’s popularity, annual mandatory funding for the program remains fixed at $5 million under the HHFKA, which is set to expire at the end of this month. However, in the upcoming Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization which Congress is currently working on and is expected to take up soon, Congress will have the opportunity to address the shortfall.
The Farm to School Act of 2015
The bipartisan, bicameral Farm to School Act of 2015, a marker bill introduced in February 2015, seeks to help meet the high demand for the Farm to School Grant Program and to make other changes to help it become even more successful. S. 569 and H.R. 1061, which were introduced on February 25, 2015 by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) in the Senate and Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) in the House, now have another 17 bipartisan cosponsors.
The bill proposes an increase in annual mandatory funding for the Farm to School Grant Program from $5 million to $15 million to meet the high need for funds and seeks to include preschools, summer food service sites, after school programs among eligible applicants. The bill also seeks to reduce administrative and regulatory barriers to farm to school, prioritize projects that link tribal schools and tribal producers, and improve program participation from beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
Congress has the opportunity to improve the health of thousands of children and the economic opportunities of thousands of farmers around the country by including the Farm to School Act in the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization this year. Help encourage Congress to take action through the steps below!
The National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the 2015 Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children, and resilient farms.