June 10, 2014
During the June 9 White House Rural Council briefing on the new Local Foods, Local Places Initiative, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted the importance farm to school programs can play in growing local economies around the country, specifically recognizing the relaunch of the USDA Farm to School Census website, which now includes final survey results and new features. First released in October 2013, the updated Farm to School Census website reveals even more school district participation in farm to school programs than initially reported, reflecting growing demand for locally grown and produced foods in the United States.
Farm to school programs exist in every state in the country and the District of Columbia and in rural and urban school districts of all sizes. Farm to school activities encompass healthy, nutritious school meals and snacks incorporating food products from local and regional sources, school gardens, and lessons in health, nutrition, food and agriculture.
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), provides grants for farm to school activities and supports farm to school participation with training, technical assistance, and research, such as the Farm to School Census.
USDA Farm to School, in partnership with the USDA Economic Research Service and with assistance from Mathematica Policy Research and the National Farm to School Network, surveyed approximately 13,133 primarily public school districts for activities during the 2011 – 2012 school year in the original release of the census. The census focused primarily on school district participation in procurement activities of school food from local sources, but also captured other farm to school educational activities.
With a response rate of 75 percent, the Census reveals that of the 9,887 school districts that completed the Census, 4,322 school districts operating 40,328 schools with approximately 23.5 million students in attendance participate in farm to school activities. While the majority of farm to school programs target K-12 (with the vast majority targeting K-5 grades, at 87 percent), 30 percent of school districts have farm to school activities in pre-K settings. Local foods were served most often at lunch (87 percent of school districts), followed by breakfast (48 percent), and in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable snack program (27 percent).
Farm to school programs present economic opportunities for all of agriculture. While fruits, vegetables and milk top the list of foods schools buy locally, respondents stated that in the future, they’d like to buy more plant-based proteins, grains/flour, herbs, meats, poultry and eggs from local suppliers.
In the 2011-2012 school year, the total farm to school dollars invested in local communities increased to $385 million. Additionally, 56 percent of the school districts that purchase local foods said they plan to buy more local foods in the future. Such local investments in agriculture is important, not only to the farmers and ranchers, but also to other local businesses that benefit from the local multiplier effect.
New data features
In addition to the inclusion of new and updated responses, the revised Census website now allows users to download raw survey data and use a database that allows for searches customizable by filters. Users can search for information on school districts by state and zip code, as well as by product type (such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, etc.), source of local foods (such as direct-from-the-farm, distributor, etc.), grade level and type of meal program (such as breakfast, lunch, etc.), and activities (such as taste tests, school gardens, etc.).
USDA has also made new national and state-by-state infographics available for download and use by practitioners to provide visualizations of specific data sets. The visuals now include age groups targeted (pre-K, K-5, etc.), the definition of local, and the type of federal nutrition service (breakfast, snack, summer meals, etc.) incorporating local food.
Farm to School and Child Nutrition Reauthorization
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) campaigned for and helped secure $40 million in mandatory funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant program in the 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (CNR), also known as the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. The Farm to School Grant Program helps schools develop or improve existing Farm to School activities, such as local procurement, agriculture and nutrition curriculum and activities, and school gardens. With the expiration of CNR 2010 on September 30, 2015, NSAC and partner organizations including the National Farm to School Network are currently in the process of planning for the best ways to strengthen farm to school and other programs that help improve children’s health and local economies.