Can you tell me about starting farm to school programs? I’m a farmer and I’d love to provide schools in my area with healthy food.

October 2010

Can you tell me about starting farm to school programs? I'm a farmer and I'd love to provide schools in my area with healthy food and appreciate any help you can provide. Thanks!

Marc E.
Kentucky

We've been hearing more and more from farmers like yourself, Marc, as well as parents, teachers, school administrators, students and others interested in developing farm to school programs in their communities.

The National Farm to School Network reports that there are more than 2,500 farm to school programs in all 50 states nationwide. That number is growing as more schools, parents, teachers, children and farmers reap the benefits of bringing healthy, farm fresh, locally grown food into school cafeterias. The Governor of North Carolina recently declared October "Farm To School Month"[1] in the state and the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture jointly celebrated "National School Lunch Week" and "National Farm to School Week" earlier this month, with particular emphasis on using healthy, locally grown foods in school meals.

So why is this trend so promising and how can farmers like you, or anyone else interested, get started?

A Win-Win-Win Proposition
Farm to School programs are a "win" for everyone.

Farm to school programs offer farmers a new marketing channel that grants them a fair price for their goods and reduces their risk by diversifying their farm business, while also supporting their local community and economy. A big win! In the state of Massachusetts for example, Worcester Public Schools saw a 15% increase in school lunch purchases when they started buying locally through the Massachusetts Farm to School Program. The 60 farms participating in the Worcester-based program generate over $700,000 in additional revenue each year[2]. That speaks to the power of local markets like farm to school programs to help keep family farmers on the land. As schools and farmers continue to work out the nuts and bolts of farm to school programs, their efforts are making great strides in creating infrastructure for local and regional food systems—like new distribution and processing channels—further supporting our communities and economies.

At the same time, farm to school programs boost the nutritional quality of school meals by giving children of all backgrounds greater access to fresh, tasty, nutritious and locally grown fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meats and other farm-raised goods. These programs encourage children to try new fruits and vegetables and increase their acceptance of nutritious foods starting at a young age, promoting healthy eating habits for the rest of their lives. Students with exposure to farm to school programs show an increased awareness of the nutritional benefits of healthy foods, and greater knowledge of plant cycles, agriculture and environmentally sustainable practices that protect the natural world. What's more, farm to school programs have been shown to positively impact parent attitudes, food habits and grocery selections, bringing the benefits of these programs home.

School educators and health and wellness professionals win too when they capitalize on all of the teaching moments related to food, nutrition and farming that are inherent in farm to school programs. Whether through field trips to the farm, inviting a farmer to visit the classroom, taste tests of produce samples, gardening initiatives and much more, educators can work with farmers to deepen students' knowledge of the connection between healthy farms, healthy food, and healthy minds and bodies. Farm to school programs can also strengthen a school's food service program through staff training on product sourcing, food preparation and menu planning.

Getting Started
As a farmer, there are a number of ways to start or participate in a farm to school program in your area.

First identify your school district's Food Service Director, since most schools actually source school lunches at the district level. Talk with him or her about the district's sourcing policies and capacity to buy directly from you. Schools generally face complicated and restrictive policies (not to mention tight budgets) governing how they run their meals programs. They may lack the capacity to process raw produce, or have certain volume requirements or other issues that will be helpful to consider as you design a program. It may help to start small and identify one or two foods, such as apples or pears, which can be used to launch a program and build from there. Starting an open dialogue with the school district about your own production capacity, pricing options and harvest schedule will sow the seeds for a robust and practical farm to school program.

Another idea is to speak with other farmers or farmer associations and cooperatives to see if they would be interested in participating in a farm to school program. There is strength in numbers, particularly when you can collectively present a range of products available for schools to source and maintain a steady volume and product availability, which schools often need to keep their school meals programs cost-effective.

Don't be afraid to think big, of course. Why limit your Farm to School ambitions to sourcing and logistics? Many school districts nationwide are expanding farm to school programming to include farm field trips, unique education curricula, installing a school garden and many other projects! What's more, consider the many other institutions in your area that may be interested in sourcing from local farmers—colleges and universities, hospitals, local businesses and other public institutions can all have something to gain by localizing their menus.

For more information, check out Farm Aid's Farm To School 101 Toolkit, a guide for everyone interested on kick-starting farm to school programs in your community. Our toolkit provides a roadmap for getting started, lists of resources and potential funding sources and even conversation starters. The Community Alliance with Family Farmers, a Farm Aid partner, also offers a great resource for farmers in particular to approach schools and start farm to school programs locally (here's a link to their PDF "Planting a FARM to SCHOOL Program, Tips for Farmers"). Also check out the Community Farm Alliance, a Farm Aid partner based in your state of Kentucky, Marc, that's done fantastic work building farm to school programs in the area.

How You Can Help
It's worth noting a unique opportunity for farmers and eaters alike to support farm to school programs nationwide. Up on Capitol Hill, a piece of legislation called the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is stuck in political muck. This act is reauthorized every four or five years and provides general guidance for federal child nutrition programs, like the National School Lunch Program. The bill that is being considered for reauthorization will, for the first time, set nutrition standards for all food served in schools and increase funding for Farm to School programs, encouraging schools to source from farmers locally.

Unfortunately, Congress did not pass the bill before leaving for midterm elections. We hope you'll join us in urging Congress to pass the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act when they reconvene in November, to enable more schools, more children and more farmers to benefit from farm to school programs. To contact your Congressional representatives:

  • Go to www.Congress.org and type in your zip code. Click on your Senator's name, and then on the contact tab for their phone number. Or, call the Capitol Switchboard and ask to be directly connected to your Senator's office at 202-224-3121.
  • Once connected, ask to speak to the legislative staff person responsible for food, nutrition or agriculture. If they're unavailable, leave a voicemail message that includes your name and phone number.
  • Share your support for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act and for strong funding for farm to school programs!

Our children deserve food that nurtures their health and wellbeing. America's hardworking family farmers are in the best position to make that a reality!

Check out our Putting it into Practice column to learn about one father's attempt to get locally-farmed food into his children's school system.

Sources

1. North Carolina Farm to School Program. (2010). http://www.ncfarmtoschool.com/

2. Ibid.



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