The Impact of Farm to School Programs
Apr 13, 2016
The upcoming (2016/17) school year will mark the 20th anniversary of the birth of the Farm to School movement in the United States, which started with pilot programs in California and Florida. This movement came about out of a desire to address two different but complementary objectives--find markets for locally produced foods, and improve the quality of food available to children through the school lunch program.
Initial USDA support for these efforts came in 2000 from mandatory funding provided through the Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems (IFAFS) that was included in the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act (AREERA) of 1998 (P.L. 104-127). The funding enabled USDA to set up a National Farm to School Program at the Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the National School Lunch program and related school meals programs, and run pilot programs in several states. A grant program to encourage adoption of farm to school projects was formally authorized in the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-265), but no funding was provided. The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 provided $5 million annually for such grants--that legislation technically expired on September 30, 2015, but since a new Child Nutrition Act has not yet been enacted, it remains in effect. These grants can be used for training, supporting operations, planning, purchasing equipment, developing school gardens, developing partnerships, and implementing farm to school programs. Organizations eligible to apply for these grants include public and charter school systems, local and state government entities, and non-profit organizations.
Many states have also enacted laws providing help for farm to school activities--12 have set up directories or similar systems to help match farmers producing appropriate foods with schools desiring to purchase them. Fifteen states have established their own Farm to School programs, with governmental administrative support. Other state laws allow local school districts to explicitly include a geographic preference in their food purchasing decisions.
An informal survey taken in 2004 found that there were 400 farm to school programs in 22 states. A provision of the 2010 child nutrition bill required that USDA conduct a biennial Census of school districts to track the level of participation in Farm to School programs around the country. The last one completed covered the 12013-14 school year, which found that nationally, 42,587 schools--about one-third of all public and private schools in the country--had implemented some type of farm to school activity, with the most common type being purchasing of local foods for student consumption as part of school breakfast or lunch menus. In aggregate, the Census found that about 23 million students benefitted from a farm to school program sometime during that school year. At the state level, the highest participation by the share of school districts in each state were in New England (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island), as well as West Virginia and Alaska, all above 75 percent.
The Census estimated that about $790 million had been spent by participating schools on purchasing local foods for their school meal programs, a 105 percent increase over the value of food purchased in the previous survey for the 2011/12 school year. Although that amount represents an impressive increase, such purchases only accounted for about 5 percent of the total funds that USDA distributed for the school lunch, breakfast, and summer meal program in fiscal year 2013.
A recent USDA report on local and regional food systems mandated by Congress estimated that local food sales were estimated to be valued at $6.1 billion in 2012, so the nearly $800 million in sales through the Farm to School program would account for about 13 percent of total sales, making it a valuable outlet for farmers seeking to generate revenue through local and regional markets.
However, such sales are not the only activity associated with Farm to School programs. The recent Census found that 44 percent of the school districts surveyed maintain school gardens to help educate their students about where their food comes from and many also undertake related classroom lessons about food and agriculture. These activities fulfill a key objective of the agricultural literacy campaign now being pursued by many U.S. farm and commodity groups.
Recent studies have also shown that the increased interest in food and agriculture spurred by Farm to School activities generate the following benefits among those students--
- They are choosing healthier options both in the school cafeteria and at home, eating more fruits and vegetables and less unhealthy foods,
- They are engaging in more physical activity and less television/computer usage,
- They are demonstrating a greater willingness to try new foods, and
- They are enhancing their overall academic achievements.
For more information about these programs and how to get your school or school district involved, check out the website for the National Farm to School Network (www.farmtoschool.org) and USDA’s Farm to School Grant program (www.fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool/farm-school-grant-program/).