October 29, 2013
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its first-ever census of Farm to School activities of school districts across the country, with promising results. The census revealed a rising rate of school district participation in Farm to School programs, reflecting the growing popularity of local foods in the United States.
According to the National Farm to School Network, which supports Farm to School activities nationwide, 400 school districts in 22 states had Farm to School programs in 2004, the first year the National Farm to School Program was authorized by statute in the 2004 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. By 2009, that number rose to 2,000 school districts in 40 states and now stands at 3,812 school districts serving approximately 21 million students in all 50 states, according to the census. An additional 13 percent of school districts responding to the survey said they would participate in Farm to School programs “in the near future.”
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 – were reported as having more than 75 percent of its school district respondents engaged in farm to school activities. Twenty-two states, as well as the District of Columbia, were reported as having more than 50 percent of its school district respondents participating in farm to school activities.
Farm to school activities, which encompass healthy, nutritious school meals incorporating local food products, school gardens, and lessons in health, nutrition, and food and agriculture, began in the late 1990s with a few pilot projects in two states.
As a result of an NSAC campaign, 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. The first round of USDA Farm to School grant recipients was announced in November 2012. In addition to providing grants, the USDA Farm to School program also supports participating school districts with research, training, and technical assistance.
USDA’s Farm to School Program (which is housed within the Food and Nutrition Service and coordinated under the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative), in partnership with the USDA Economic Research Service and with assistance from Mathematica Policy Research and the National Farm to School Network, surveyed approximately 13,000 school districts for activities during the 2011 – 2012 school year. With an over 65 percent response rate, responses from approximately 8,800 school districts were used for the census. Taken primarily from public school districts from all 50 states and Washington, D.C, the census focused primarily on school district participation in procurement activities related to local sourcing, but also captured other farm to school educational activities. The census not only provides national results, but also results by state and school district in a format that is searchable.
Multiple Benefits and Strong Economic Impact
The increase in Farm to School programs has multiple benefits, as noted by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a recent press statement:
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.
School district investment in local food products during the 2011 – 2012 school year was approximately $354.6 million out of the estimated $2.5 billion that was spent on school food. Fifty-six percent of the school districts that purchase local foods said they plan to buy more local foods in the future.
With the strong and growing interest from school districts to purchase more local foods and more school districts expressing an interest in developing Farm to School programs, local producers and mid-tier value chains stand to have greater economic opportunities in the years to come. By supporting locally produced foods, school districts are also supporting the greater local economy.
As Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services recently pointed out in his remarks on Farm to School programs and the new census:
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.
Variety and Innovation
School districts are also becoming increasingly interested in a wider variety of local food offerings. Fruits and vegetables, milk, baked goods, and herbs topped the list of local food products currently offered in schools. Other local food items purchased include seafood, grains, dairy products other than milk, meat and poultry, and eggs. Among the local food categories the census anticipates to experience growth are local beans and other legumes, grains, flour, herbs, meat, poultry, and eggs.
In addition to supporting local farmers and the local economy through the purchase of foods sourced locally, school districts are engaged in a variety of Farm to School activities ranging from school gardens, student field trips to farms and farmer visits to schools, farm to school concepts integrated into school curriculum, and cafeteria food coaches encouraging kids to eat healthy and local foods.
Both 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.” Released during national Farm to School month, the Farm to School census is poised to continue showcasing the achievements of this increasingly popular program.
Farm Bill’s Farm to School Pilot Programs
As the House and Senate farm bill conferees begin their quest for developing a final version of a new five-year farm bill, two farm to school procurement issues remains 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.
Special Note: Through November 30, 2013, the USDA plans to continue accepting survey responses from school districts who either missed the opportunity to complete them or need to update their responses to correct for errors. School districts that would like to complete or update survey responses should contact Matt Benson with the USDA Farm to School Program at email@example.com. Both updated and new data from school districts will be posted to the census website by January 2014. A second census updating the 2013 census is planned for the spring of 2015.