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The Untold History of Federal Farm to School Support and its Impact on Local Food Research

October 4, 2019


Debra Tropp (center) at the Virginia Women's Conference with fellow panelists Sally Schwitters, Executive Director of Tricycle Gardens, Richmond, VA and Dr. Jewel Hairston, Dean, College of School of Agriculture, Virginia State University.
Debra Tropp (center) at the Virginia Women’s Conference with fellow panelists Sally Schwitters, Executive Director of Tricycle Gardens, Richmond, VA and Dr. Jewel Hairston, Dean, College of School of Agriculture, Virginia State University.

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Debra Tropp, former Deputy Director, Local Food Research and Development, Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Debra retired from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service in January 2019 after 26 years of service. She continues to keep her hand in local and regional food issues through her appointments to her county’s Agricultural Advisory Commission and Food Economy working group and collaborations with regional and national organizations.

Many of you reading this blog are well-acquainted with the Farm to School Grant Program, a dedicated source of competitively-awarded federal grants designed to improve access to local food in eligible schools through training, technical assistance, educational activities and operational improvements. Created in 2010 as part of The Healthy, Hunger‐Free Kids Act of 2010, the program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Community Food Systems. Today, the Farm to School Grant Program serves as the primary federal vehicle for funding farm to school activities across the country. The program awards approximately $5 million annually, sometimes more depending on the level of discretionary funding appropriators provide for it, to help incorporate local products into school meal programs, integrate agricultural education into the classroom, and cultivate and expand school gardens.

What many readers may not know, however, is that USDA’s support for farm to school programming predates the creation of the Farm to School Grant Program by nearly 15 years. In fact, USDA’s early exploration and support of farm to school activities actually inspired much of the subsequent federal research on wholesale marketing channels and aggregation for local foods!

In honor of Farm to School month (October), the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has invited me to share some of my personal observations about the evolution of farm to school support at USDA, and the ripple effects generated by the pursuit of farm to school research that helped accelerate the expansion and scope of the Department’s local food research portfolio.[ii]

The Beginning: Pilot Projects in Florida and Georgia

USDA’s direct support of farm to school programs officially began back in 1996 with the signing of a cooperative research agreement between USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Glyen Holmes of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Florida A&M University. The intent of the research agreement was to support the revitalization of the New North Florida Cooperative (NNFC) – a small network of African-American vegetable farmers located near Jackson County, FL – and help NNFC members sell their fresh vegetables to local school food service buyers.

The mastermind behind the project, Glyen Holmes, was a longtime USDA/NRCS career employee who was transferred from Mississippi to northern Florida to serve as an outreach coordinator. Through his networking efforts, he was able to negotiate a pilot marketing partnership between the struggling Cooperative, the food service director for the Gadsden County, FL school district (J’Amy Peterson) and an extension specialist at Florida A&M University (Vonda Richardson). A chance encounter in 1995 at a Florida-based conference between Holmes and AMS Associate Administrator Dr. Kenneth Clayton eventually led AMS to provide financial support to this pilot marketing project through a discretionary cooperative research agreement.

After a few false starts, the New North Florida Cooperative found itself a winning product line when it began to sell chopped, bagged fresh collard greens to the Gadsden school district. This product resonated with the students and the food service staff, who appreciated receiving a fresh version of a culturally appropriate vegetable that was widely used among the largely African-American rural population. Food service staff in particular appreciated that the chopped collard greens did not require further processing (and additional labor) in a school kitchen setting, and could easily be incorporated into existing school menus. By 2000, Holmes and the NNFC proved to be so successful in selling the cooperative’s collard greens to school systems that he left his position at USDA to focus his energy entirely on working with the NNFC.[iii]

A similarly themed farm to school pilot project, involving small-scale African-American produce farmers and the Georgia Department of Agriculture, also received financial support from AMS the following year. Unfortunately, the Georgia-based project was terminated after the initial pilot phase based on lackluster responses from participating schools related to product quality and customer service issues.

The Appeal of Farm to School Initiatives

While the exact motivations behind AMS’ initial support of these pilot farm to school initiatives are not explicitly known, there are several coinciding factors that could help to explain their appeal to senior Agency leadership at the time:

  • AMS’s historic involvement in food procurement for federal food assistance programs (the most prominent of which was the National School Lunch Program)
  • Legislative language that directed AMS to foster direct marketing activities that were of mutual benefit to producers and consumers [iv]
  • Emerging interest in providing small-scale farmers and minority farmers greater access to available USDA resources [v]
  • Growing emphasis by the White House on improving the quality of school meals

In line with this last priority, AMS initiated discussions in 1995 with USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and personnel from the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Personnel Support Center (later known as the Defense Support Center Philadelphia [DSCP]). FNS hoped to explore how the DoD’s extensive capacity in produce procurement and logistics (used to supply fresh produce to military bases throughout the country and around the world) could be channeled to augment the volume of fresh produce available for school meal use. An agreement to carry out a pilot project with eight states, whereby a portion of commodity entitlement funds could be allocated toward the project, was signed by AMS, FNS and DSCP administrators in August 1995. The pilot was formally launched during the 1995-1996 school year.

Given this historical backdrop, one can certainly understand AMS’s interest in helping small-scale minority farmers explore market opportunities in school food service. Such efforts, if successful, could potentially increase the amount of fresh produce offered in school meal programs, while also creating new and stable sources of income for farm families. It is instructive to note that, at the time, the incentive for creating these direct marketing relationships was not explicitly based on an interest in strengthening local food systems per se. Nevertheless, the early entry and deep engagement of AMS personnel in farm to school marketing led, even if unintentionally, to the Agency’s subsequent immersion in local and regional food systems work. These efforts also sparked interest among USDA leadership in investigating and providing technical and financial support for local/regional food marketing, distribution, and operational improvements.

Expanding the Scope

While it may not be possible to pinpoint a singular factor that caused AMS to branch out from its early farm to school work, there were a number of favorable circumstances that catapulted AMS into leading efforts to address local and regional food marketing issues.

One of these circumstances was growing recognition within USDA about AMS’s oversight of farm to school marketing projects and its development of related subject matter expertise [vi]. In late 1999, a couple of AMS employees (including myself) were recruited to join a new Department-wide farm to school task force being assembled by the USDA Office of Community Food Security under Andy Fisher’s leadership [vii]. As part of this task force, I was invited to help organize the first-ever USDA farm to school marketing workshop. This initial workshop was held in Georgetown, KY in May 2000 in partnership with representatives from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, University of Kentucky Extension, and members of the FNS public affairs team.

Following that workshop, I served as the primary author of the proceedings document from the event, which incorporated summaries of outcomes and benefits of several farm to school marketing experiments that were beginning to take place around the nation. This document was designed to provide some general guidance about what was then an understudied market outlet [viii].

A second catalyzing circumstance was the rise of AMS as a potential source of farm to school (and other agricultural marketing projects focused on wholesale channels) funding, which came about as a result of AMS supporting two consecutive cooperative research agreements in farm to school marketing. Much of the early attention was focused on AMS’s Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program (FSMIP) grants; one of the few existing sources of USDA funding that could be applied to such projects [ix].

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, AMS provided some of the earliest federal support to farm to school, institutional and commercial food service marketing projects. This support was coupled with AMS’s ongoing work on direct marketing and farmers market trends. Later, AMS began to serve as the central Departmental repository for research and analysis related to the market potential for local foods.

Growing exposure to the emerging body of knowledge on farm to school and other wholesale marketing strategies also encouraged AMS to undertake projects that would further explore the potential benefits of marketing channel diversification and allow the existing marketing research program to migrate beyond its direct-to-consumer focus. One such example of this influenced occurred in late 2000, when I was serving as Acting Staff Officer for the FSMIP grant program.

Research Projects Deepen the Work

During my time with FSMIP, I ran across a FSMIP-funded study that correlated food service market share and fresh meat sales to the financial profitability of meat processing firms in Texas [x]. Intrigued by the findings and wondering about the possible relationship between product freshness, geographic proximity, and buyer preference, I successfully pitched a follow-up research idea to the authors of the study. This ultimately led to our collaboration and AMS’s subsequent publication of Expanding Commercial Food Service Sales by Small Meat Processing Firms [xi]. Our publication explored the motivations among restaurant chefs and food service staff in Texas to purchase meat products from local processors, and also detailed some of the logistical, marketing, and perceptual barriers that prevented more local transactions from occurring.

The revelations that emerged from this study – including the overriding importance of product quality and freshness, and the strong desire of chefs and restaurateurs in Texas to showcase unique/customized meat items – paved the way for AMS’s involvement in research on identity preservation and product/service differentiation in the food supply chain. Our work also catalyzed interest in exploring how load consolidation and aggregation could be employed to yield greater efficiency and market access for local food suppliers while maintaining product integrity [xii]. These developments subsequently set the stage for the Agency’s leadership of local food hub research at the Department [xiii].

They also helped precipitate the eventual decision by Congress to designate AMS as the administrative home for several of federal grant programs designed to support local and regional food systems (e.g., Farmers Market Promotion Program, Local Food Promotion Program).

Looking Back, Looking Forward

So, from this one woman’s perspective, the impact of federal farm to school financial support and technical assistance was far more transformative in shaping the future trajectory of local food research, analysis, and technical assistance than might be surmised on the surface. The deep exposure of career marketing specialists to farm to school marketing activities and logistics – and the myriad challenges associated with making such business relationships successful from both a supplier and buyer perspective – was instrumental in educating career employees at USDA. From their work on farm to school activities, USDA staff learned vital lessons from grassroots stakeholders about barriers to entry and volume constraints and distribution bottlenecks facing small and mid-size farm operations.

These revelations led them to develop and implement appropriate interventions to address these obstacles within various marketing channels and share their observations with practitioners. It also served to heighten internal awareness about the potential role of public institutions in supporting the local farm economy through their food purchasing decisions. This awareness, in turn, helped spur  modifications to federal school procurement requirements and widespread adoption of geographic preference rules.

Personally, I am so very grateful that I was assigned to work on farm to school marketing issues nearly 25 years ago. Thanks to that rather random event, I was led on a lifelong path of investigating profitable marketing strategies for farm operations and networks and sharing that information with the public, an invaluable experience for which I am forever indebted. It is also thrilling to have been a very small part of initiating what has become an overwhelmingly popular and successful strategy – marketing local foods to local schools.

Over the course of my career at USDA, the presence of farm to school programs has increased from just a handful of schools in the mid-1990s, to more than 40,000 schools in all 50 states today. That amounts to more than 40 percent of all schools in the U.S., and $800 million dollars in cumulative local farm product sales [xiv]! Given the stellar success of this program, I am hopeful that the FY2020 appropriations process will provide an additional $5 million in discretionary funds for this vital work. I believe that farm to school advocates across the country have every reason to expect continued near-term support of this vital market channel, which so greatly benefits communities, families, and local farm economies.


Citations and References

[ii] A more elaborate discussion of this topic may be found within my recent viewpoint article entitled From anecdote to formal evaluation: Reflections from more than two decades on the local food research trail at USDA, Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, August 2019, https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2019.091.044

[iii] Since this time, Glyen Holmes has emerged as a well-known national advocate on farm to school issues in addition to his continued work in agricultural marketing and distribution to schools. In May 2009, he testified before Congress on behalf of the National Farm to School Network in support of the proposed USDA National Farm to school Grant Program, and in 2010, he was selected as a farmer “ hero” by the FarmAid organization.

[iv] AMS has the primary responsibility of carrying out the unfunded mandates outlined in the 1976 Farmer to Consumer Direct Marketing Act. The act directs the Secretary of Agriculture to “promote, through appropriate means and on an economically sustainable basis, the development and expansion of direct marketing of agricultural commodities from farmers to consumers” (emphasis added; Public Law 94-463, 94th Congress, H.R. 10339, “Purpose”).

[v] Not long after this period, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman appointed a 30-member National Commission on Small Farms to solicit policy recommendation for strengthening small-scale/family-owned farms with less than $250,000 in annual gross receipts, in view of growing structural bias in the farm economy and increased levels of concentration in farm-related assets and wealth. The final report issued by this Commission, A Time to Act, was published by USDA in January 1998.

[vi] Public-facing USDA documents summarizing the results of the Florida pilot project began to be disseminated in mid-1999. Examples include a series of Small Farmer Success Story bulletins and USDA’s Small Farm Digest. See: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED450986.pdf and Minority Farmers Market Produce to Schools, Small Farm Digest, US Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, Spring/Summer 1999, vol. 2, no. 3.

[vii] Andy Fisher co-founded and led the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), a first of its kind national alliance of hundreds of groups working on urban food access and local food, which operated for 17 years from 1994-2011. He presently serves as Executive Director of the Ecological Farming Association, based in Santa Cruz, CA, and continues to write and lecture on food system issues and disparities.

[viii] Tropp, Debra and Olowolayemo, Surajudeen, How Local Farmers and School Food Service Buyers Are Building Alliances: Lessons Learned from the USDA Small Farm/School Meals Workshop, May 1, 2000, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC, December 2000, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED450983.pdf.

[ix] By and large, dedicated Federal funding for local food systems activities did not exist before 2006, though some agencies such as AMS used their existing funding mechanisms approve local food research or demonstration projects to the extent that such activities were eligible and aligned with authorizing legislation. The Commodity Food Project grant program, administered by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, was created by Congress in 1996, but specifically mandated that funded projects focus on increasing the self-reliance of communities in providing for their own food needs, and/or creating mutual benefit for agricultural producers and low-income consumers.

[x] Siebert, John W. & Nayga, Rodolfo M., Jr. & Thelen, Gina C.,. “Enhancing The Financial And Marketing Performance Of Firms In The Smoked And Processed Meat Industry,” Journal of Food Distribution Research, Food Distribution Research Society, vol. 31(1), pages 1-6, March 2000, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.582.1361

[xi] See https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/38382/PDF and http://www.choicesmagazine.org/2003-3/2003-307.htm

[xii] An assignment from USDA leadership to work in partnership with the Upper Great Plains Institute at North Dakota State University (NDSU) on identity-preservation issues for grain shipments led AMS and NDSU marketing specialists to develop a series of “supply chain basics” modules aimed at helping small and midsized agricultural producers and processors understand the logistical, inventory management, and market requirements associated with differentiated agricultural marketing practices.

Titles in the series included:

[xiii] AMS’s rolled out its first educational program on food aggregation in April 2009 at the West Coast Direct Marketing Conference in Oakland, CA, which brought together approximate 120 key stakeholders and early adopters in the world of local food distribution to discuss ongoing experiments and lessons learned (the outline of presentations offered may be seen at http://bieb.ruaf.org/ruaf_bieb/upload/3131.pdf.) This activity was followed by the development and release of two seminal research reports on local/regional food hub operations in 2012, Moving Food Along the Value Chain: Innovations in Regional Food Distribution and the USDA Regional Food Hub Resource Guide.

[xiv] USDA Farm to School Census 2015, accessed on October 3, 2019 at https://farmtoschoolcensus.fns.usda.gov.  Reflects activity during the 2013-2014 school year.


Categories: Carousel, Local & Regional Food Systems, Marketing and Labeling, Nutrition & Food Access


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