Ask Farm Aid | June 8, 2009

What’s the best way to get more farm fresh food into my child’s school cafeteria?

June 2009

Dear Hilde

As the school year winds down, I’m thinking this might be a good time to start to organize a farm to school program at my children’s elementary school. After nine months of French toast sticks and fried chicken nuggets rotating on the lunch menu, I’m feeling ready to kick this effort into high gear but am not quite sure where to begin. What’s the best way to get more farm fresh food into my children’s school cafeteria?

Simi K.
Manchester, NH

Dear Simi,

First of all, I am really impressed with your level of motivation during a time when concentration on (and in) school tends to wane as plans for summer take hold. Time and again, all it takes is an interested community member like yourself to lay the groundwork for a farm to school program to take root and grow – in fact that is how nearly 9,000 schools across the country have established successful programs in just over ten years time. So, congratulations, Simi, for taking the critical first step!

Here at Farm Aid we’ve been thinking about farm to school for quite some time. In addition to diversifying a fried-food heavy menu that, as you pointed out, leaves much to be desired, here are a few more pluses to add to your list as you advocate for a farm to school program in your community:

  • Local farmers can get high quality, fresh produce to a school cafeteria within 24 hours of harvest. Farm to school programs provide healthier, fresher, tastier foods for the growing minds that need them.
  • Farm to school programs encourage children to try new fruits and vegetables and increase their acceptance of these healthful foods both in and out of school. To top it off, farm to school programs have shown positive effects on parent attitudes, food habits, and grocery selections as well, bringing the benefits home.
  • Farmers often contribute more than just food to farm to school programs, including student farm visits, farmer visits to the school, and farm taste-tests. These supplemental activities provide children with a meaningful way to understand and explore the connection between healthy farms, healthy food, and healthy minds and bodies.
  • Students with exposure to farm to school programs and associated educational programming show an increased knowledge and awareness of the nutritional benefits of healthy foods, gardening, growing cycles, agriculture, and environmentally sustainable practices that protect our waterways and reduce carbon emissions.
  • Farm to school programs support local economies and keep money in the hands of family farmers and the community. Sales to schools have accounted for an average of 5 to 10% of participating farmers’ income, though this number has been as high as 40% for certain farmers.
  • And, finally, farm to school programs help to keep family farmers on their land so they can continue growing high-quality food. Healthy family farms means healthy land and healthy food for generations to come.

With such a clear win-win situation for our children, family farmers, and local communities, it’s hard to make a case against farm to school. The difficult part is just getting started.

To help, we’ve pulled together Farm Aid’s Farm to School 101 toolkit, which provides a step-by-step guide to getting started on crafting a farm to school program in your community. It is complete with the best up-to-date resources we could find to get you well on your way toward farm to school success!

In terms of timing, you’re in great shape. Early summer is actually a very opportune time to kick off a farm to school effort. The growing season is upon us; many schools are reevaluating programs and budgets for the upcoming school year; local farmers’ markets and farm stands are open for the season (both terrific places to connect with area growers); and parents, teachers and school officials often have some free time on the horizon for organizing meetings and assembling interest in the community.

And, if you need any more persuasion, there’s one especially important reason why right now is a great time to think about farm to school programs, and that’s the Child Nutrition Act. This act, which provides general guidance for federal Child Nutrition Programs (including school lunch and school breakfast), is currently being “reauthorized” by Congress, something that happens only once every four or five years. The evaluation and renewal of this legislation provides a ripe opportunity to implement and strengthen policies that promote locally and regionally grown foods from family farms, making farm to school programs a reality in schools across the country.

In the coming weeks, please take a moment to urge your representatives in Congress to support a strong, well-funded Child Nutrition Reauthorization – one that will enable more schools, more children and more farmers to benefit from farm to school programs. You can forward this column and our toolkit onto your family, friends, and teachers, giving them the background info they’ll need to do the same. Each and every child deserves the opportunity to eat food in their school’s cafeteria that ensures their health and wellbeing – and America’s hardworking family farmers are in the best positions to make that right a reality.

But we can’t stop there. We also must continue our efforts to advocate for federal, state and local policies that enable and support a vibrant network of family-farmed agriculture in the United States. Despite our best intentions for bringing healthy, farm fresh foods into our schools, without family farmers thriving in your region and policies and programs to support small-scale and local distribution of their bounty, our efforts will turn up fruitless.

To visit Farm Aid’s Action Center and receive regular action alerts and updates on how to make your voice heard on behalf of America’s family farmers, click here.

And, for more information on the farm to school opportunities in the Child Nutrition Re-authorization of 2009, check out The National Farm to School Network’s great policy brief entitled “Nourishing the Nation One Tray at a Time” (PDF format)

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