Guest post by Deborah Kane, National Director, USDA Farm to School Program
Everyone’s a star during National Farm to School Month. In fact, the spotlight shines brightly on the National Farm to School Network itself. Without the Network and its role in building a coalition in support of healthy kids and local food, there wouldn’t be a USDA Farm to School Program. But because there is, today USDA is charged with providing training and technical assistance to school districts all across the country to help them transform school food and create a healthier next generation.
Since the official start of the USDA Farm to School Program, we’ve focused on making sure schools have the tools they need to bring local products into the lunchroom and teach children where their food comes from. One of our newest resources, Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs, covers procurement basics -- how to define local, where to find local products, and the variety of ways schools can purchase locally in accordance with regulations. The guide is complemented by a twelve-part webinar series called Finding, Buying and Serving Local Foods. Our Fact Sheets cover topics that range from USDA grants and loans that support farm to school activities to working with Cooperative Extension to grow your program, while a brand new Farm to School Planning Toolkit offers eleven distinct chapters on everything from school gardens to menu planning, marketing and more.
USDA also supports farm to school programs by distributing up to $5 million annually in grants, and there we get to shine the spotlight on some fantastic projects. New this year USDA is offering grants that support farm to school events and trainings. In Alaska, the Southeast Conference will use funds to host a statewide gathering connecting school food buyers with local producers with an emphasis on culturally appropriate local foods, including seafood and traditional Native foods; while in New York, Cornell Cooperative Extension will host five regional trainings on agriculture-based curriculum for educators across the state. In the Mid-Atlantic, the Virginia Department of Agriculture will host a statewide farm to school conference and use it as a forum to establish a peer-to-peer mentoring program for school food service directors.
Beyond grants for events, other USDA Farm to School grantees have been implementing all sorts of exciting projects to bring the farm to school. See for yourself; in celebration of National Farm to School Month, we’re excited to announce a five-part video series featuring testimonials from more than 30 USDA Farm to School grantees.
“We’re actually seeing our farmers have hope. The farm to school program allows them to see an opportunity for a sustainable living for themselves and their families,” says Daaiyah Salaam from the Southwest Georgia Project in a video on the impacts of farm to school programs.
According to USDA’s first-ever Farm to School Census, 44 percent of school districts across the country were operating farm to school programs as of the 2012-2013 school year and another 13 percent had plans to start in the future. Farm to school programs exist in every state in the country. In school year 2011-2012, schools purchased over $386 million in local food from farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food processors and manufacturers. And an impressive 56 percent of school districts report that they will buy even more local foods in future school years.
So hats off to the National Farm to School Network and its myriad members who sought to institutionalize farm to school at the Federal level. I’d say it was a job well done.
Editor’s Note: A new video will be released each week throughout the month of October. Access the complete series here. To receive information and updates about USDA’s Farm to School Program, please sign up for our Farm to School E-letter.