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National Farm to School Network

News

Raise the (barn) roof! Schools invest over half a billion dollars in local communities

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 20, 2015
By Deborah Kane, Director, Office of Community Food Systems, USDA Food and Nutrition Service

 Photo Credit: USDA Food and Nutrition Service

You know what excites me more than October’s succulent pears, more than its sweet squash, and even more than the National Farm to School Month celebrations that happen on each of its days across the nation? $598 million dollars. 

That, according to preliminary results from USDA’s second Farm to School Census, is how much schools across the country spent on local foods during school year 2013-14. Earlier today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this remarkable figure, which represents an increase of $212 million (or 55%) over final results from the last Census, conducted two years ago. 

Preliminary numbers also show that more than 42,000 schools are involved in farm to school activities. Whether through buying local foods, building school gardens, or taking a field trip to a local farm, these programs improve child nutrition and provide dynamic educational experiences for students, all the while providing new market opportunities for local and regional farmers. 

Indeed, the benefits derived from adopting farm to school strategies are significant. The Census found that school districts participating in farm to school activities enjoyed at least one of the following advantages: 
  • Greater support from parents and the community
  • Greater acceptance of the new meal pattern
  • Lower school meal program costs
  • Reduced food waste 
  • Increased participation in school meals
These early results are impressive, but I don’t think they represent all of the extraordinary work happening across the nation. That’s why, from now until November 20, 2015, USDA is encouraging all food service directors to visit the Census site and follow the three easy steps outlined there to make sure their districts are included in the final count. 

 Photo Credit: USDA Food and Nutrition Service
We did a “hoo rah” at USDA when these early results came in – and we’ll surely do another when final results are released in early 2016 – but it should be noted we’ve been celebrating several other milestones and accomplishments this Farm to School Month as well. Earlier this month we cheered on USDA Farm to School grantees, and all those who support them, when distributing a summary of grants awards and impacts over the last three years of USDA Farm to School grant-making. Among other things, the report showed that the 221 awards we’ve made have helped 12,300 schools improve nutritious meal options made with local ingredients for 6.9 million students, while expanding market opportunities for family farmers and ranchers in their communities. And last week, we celebrated the announcement that our work within the Food and Nutrition Service will now be housed in a new Office of Community Food Systems. 

We’re raising the (barn) roof but know that celebrations are always more fun with a friend or two in tow. Please do join us for a review of farm to school accomplishments to date and a discussion of what’s to come for community food systems work at USDA next Thursday, October 29, at 2:00 pm ET. 

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